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book review

Christy Ann ConlinBruce Dienes

The word "memento" is often used as a synonym for "souvenir," but at its root lurk complex undertones. The expression memento mori is a warning, and in the Roman Catholic mass, the word refers to prayers for the living and for the dead. In Christy Ann Conlin's latest novel, the memento in question refers to a girl's gift for seeing the dead, and the competing drives of remorse and retribution that it stirs in those around her.

Like Conlin's popular debut, Heave, this Bay of Fundy-set Gothic features a troubled heroine and sprawling cast of eccentrics. Fancy Mosher works at Petal's End, the Parker family's crumbling estate abandoned after the First World War and transformed into a centre for convalescing soldiers during the Second. The summer that Fancy turns 12, the surviving Parkers return for one last, fateful visit.

The Memento is a classic spine-tingler, centring on a haunted house and children hovering between evil and innocence, power and vulnerability. As in Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, the decaying mansion is used to represent shared guilt and a dying way of life. And, like that great coming-of-age Gothic, Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, Conlin's novel lingers on relationships between children and servants, children and their (often absent) parents, and elderly relatives – all within the span of one sultry, sordid summer.

At the same time, The Memento is its own novel, rooted in the landscape and lore of the Annapolis Valley. Superstition abounds, but it's really the past that stalks those too young to understand it, fating family tragedies to repeat themselves across the generations.

At the heart of Fancy's story is an alcoholic mother beset by guilt over the death of her first child, John Lee. Fancy is the 12th-born child, conceived in the expectation that she will inherit her grandfather's ability to see the dead. Fancy lives with Grampie, but on her 12th birthday, Ma returns, insistent that Fancy will contact John Lee for her. Conlin writes, "There is a violent terror that fills a child when they realize that their parent has gone over the edge and won't be clawing their way back up again" – and indeed, one of her tale's most troubling elements is the poisoning of this relationship.

The Parker family, too, has been infected with its own poison: several years earlier, the heir, Charlie, "died playing with a rope" in an abandoned wing of the house. His wife, Estelle, now returns with her two daughters, Charlie's invalid mother, Marigold, and their doctor. Summer on the estate bristles with illicit liaisons and tensions between employers and staff, prompting Fancy's friend, Art, to observe, "All these old people having problems from things they did when they were young. This doesn't have anything to do with us."

Only, of course, it does.

Sure enough, at Marigold's farewell garden party a violent upset sets in motion even more sinister developments. Readers can safely bet that these will involve fire, and the sea, and another sacrificial victim, but such conventions become freshly unnerving in the startlingly short chapter in which they unfold.

Brevity is a powerful tool in spooky writing, and one which could have been used to greater effect elsewhere in The Memento. Conlin has a weakness for character monologues, which at the right moment can be beautifully rendered; but as a means of filling in back story before someone remembers to remark that they shouldn't be gossiping, can feel clunky.

The novel also suffers from a loss of tension in a somewhat saggy middle, while the ending feels rushed. The most interesting character development occurs in the final section, which skips forward 10 years, but the uneven pace means that some shocking last-minute developments are underplayed.

Still, Conlin has an excellent eye for the grotesque and a light comic touch, and her writing often sparkles. Moreover, she has the courage to show us a real monster. At a time when most ghost stories favour psychological suggestion, it's refreshing to encounter something as horrifically visceral as the nightmarish creature here. When Fancy's culpability in another crime comes to the fore, the distinction between madness and malice is increasingly blurred, to powerful effect.

Grief and fate, Conlin ultimately seems to suggest, are two sides of the same coin. And so, as events at Petal's End rush to their inevitable conclusion, the memento of the title comes to seem not so much a memory, as a warning.

Trilby Kent's new novel, Once, in a Town Called Moth, will appear later this year.

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