1133 A therapeutic museum of feelings
The Memory Collectors
by Kim Neville
Toronto: Simon and Schuster Canada (Atria Books), 2021
$23.00 / 9781982157586
Reviewed by Misao Dean
I am a bit of a packrat. I can’t resist flea market tables and antique stores crowded with “stuff.” Often the things that appeal to me are not particularly valuable – vintage bar pins, hand-painted china, little-known novels – but after I’ve held them in my hands, turned them over, looked closely, I just know, I need this (and I don’t need that!) I’ve tried to discipline myself, especially in relation to books – my years as a grad student left little money for spontaneous purchases – but I’ve still got a fair collection of things I can’t bear to lose. Never mind the current fad for de-cluttering: my things actually do “spark joy,” so why would I want to get rid of them?
The Memory Collectors is a novel about people who, like me, have instantaneous and emotional reactions to things, but author Kim Neville has taken this up a notch by giving her main characters, Ev and Harriet, the supernatural “gift” of being able to sense the emotions, memories, and histories associated with objects. For both characters this gift is a mixed one, leaving them open to being overwhelmed by other people’s emotions, positive and negative, at any time. Ev has reacted by insulating herself against emotion, going so far as to wear gloves in order to mute her own responses. Harriet becomes a hoarder, revelling in her sense of control, dipping in to her collection to experience joy, comfort, or love, at will, and hiding away the negative feelings under piles of positivity. When Harriet hires Ev to help her organize her stuff, well, as they say, the plot thickens.
Neville has got hold of an important idea, and one that I think many readers will relate to. The importance of objects in our lives is one of those “first world problems” that demands our daily attention, from the pile of recycling that lives in a corner of the kitchen to the persistent problem of picking up after ourselves. The tasks associated with acquiring and managing things is rife with emotional charge — one need only look at the popularity of on-line shopping during the current pandemic, “retail therapy” that attempts to compensate for the emotional needs that many of us feel. The simple act of sorting through our stuff provokes existential questions: When does an object stop being useful, and become valued only for its beauty? Its associations? When does an object become garbage? Who are we without our “stuff”?
Neville’s characters are forced to confront these seemingly unanswerable questions as they sort through Harriet’s collection, patiently separating the things that evoke positive emotions from the things associated with anger, shame, and violence. Harriet hopes to create a therapeutic “museum” with rooms that evoke love, tenderness, safety, and generosity, but at the same time she struggles with how to control the effects of the objects that amplify dangerous feelings. The metaphor is clear: by the end of the novel both Ev and Harriet will have to retrieve and confront the objects related to their own pasts, and learn to manage the fear and anxiety they evoke. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave the plot summary there, except to say that the “mysteries” that are teased on the jacket blurb provide a strong and satisfying structure for the book.
The Memory Collectors is a lovely read, with appealing characters and graceful prose. Neville takes full advantage of her Vancouver setting, describing the Chinatown night market where Ev sells her dumpster finds, and Southlands, where Harriet’s collection sits lowering over the neglected lawn, with equal detail. I especially like the patient delineation of the objects and the emotions they collect – a baby rattle that evokes love and tenderness, with an aftertaste of shame and betrayal, or a red scarf that conveys the confidence of a woman on her way to a job interview. Scraps of paper, jars of buttons, a silver sword, all take their place in these imagined collections, and each glows with significance and charm.
Neville’s idea for a museum of feelings built from this collection is intriguing, and the academic in me wants to follow up with a micro-dose of cultural theory. The Memory Collectors asks questions not only about what we as individuals collect, but also about how and what societies collect, and what effects those collections have on their owners. Statues (of Sir John A Macdonald)? Indigenous artwork (acquired how)? Teacups, hand tools, embroidery, land title documents? Do these objects create emotional resonances, and does the preservation of these pieces of the past determine our futures? What about the things we throw away? And where is away, anyway? The Memory Collectors is a gentle reflection on issues we continue to confront, in both our personal and our collective lives.
Misao Dean is Professor of English at the University of Victoria, and author of Inheriting a Canoe Paddle: The Canoe in Discourses of English Canadian Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2013). She likes reading novels. She is currently President of the Vancouver Island Local History Society, a non-profit group that manages Point Ellice Heritage House Museum in Victoria, where the weight of the things we value continues to spark joy, and evoke anger. Visit Point Ellice House this summer: open by donation, 12-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
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