There’s always something rather special about being able to share a review of a book on its publication day – and if I didn’t have a blog, this is one I’d be shouting about from the rooftops with a megaphone. The Memory by Judith Barrow is published today by Honno, available in paperback and for kindle: the paperback and the e-book in e-pub format are also available via Hive, or you might prefer to buy the paperback through Honno’s website. My thanks to Helena at Honno for my advance reading e-copy.
I’m relatively new to Judith’s writing – to my shame, I still haven’t managed to read the Howarth trilogy (A Pattern of Shadows, Changing Patterns and Living in the Shadows). But I have read the series prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, prompted by my plan to spend some time at the Narberth Book Fair (Judith was the co-organiser): you’ll find my review here, and it was an absolute delight to discover her wonderful writing. It was also an immense pleasure to spend time in Judith’s company – in fact, it was such a pleasure that I spent time in Narberth again in 2019, when I was able to share first-hand her excitement about this new book.
Mother and daughter tied together by shame and secrecy, love and hate.
‘I wait by the bed. I move into her line of vision and it’s as though we’re watching one another, my mother and me; two women – trapped.’
Today has been a long time coming. Irene sits at her mother’s side waiting for the right moment, for the point at which she will know she is doing the right thing by Rose.
Rose was Irene’s little sister, an unwanted embarrassment to their mother Lilian but a treasure to Irene. Rose died thirty years ago, when she was eight, and nobody has talked about the circumstances of her death since. But Irene knows what she saw. Over the course of 24 hours their moving and tragic story is revealed – a story of love and duty, betrayal and loss – as Irene rediscovers the past and finds hope for the future.
This could have been a really difficult read with its focus on that emotional maelstrom that dementia brings – and it’s all considerably complicated by the way the characters’ lives have unfolded, with a single significant memory driving an ever-present hatred that underpins the love and caring. But the way this book is structured really is absolute perfection.
Each chapter starts with the present day, a tightly focused timeline, where the minutes pass so very slowly. Over a 24 hour period we follow Irene as she copes – just about – with the care of her mother: it’s in the present tense, and it’s totally relentless, claustrophobic, exhausting to experience (not “read” – it’s so much more than that). It’s unflinching, it’s painfully real – but there are, just sometimes, those moments of incongruity (I hesitate to say humour) that will be only too familiar to anyone who’s experienced the life of a carer. Emotionally, it tears at you constantly – the unremitting demands, the absence of sleep, the isolation, the despair, the sheer impossibility of it all.
Interspersed is a linear account of Irene’s life, progressing through her memories. Told in the past tense, you might find yourself in slightly more familiar territory here if you’ve read the author’s earlier books – the twists and turns that life brings, with a close focus on the individuals involved, but perhaps with a smaller and more intimate canvas.
We follow her from childhood – the age of eight – when her life is changed by the birth of sister Rose, a child with Down’s syndrome. When her mother rejects the child, young Irene – with the support of her father, and her grandmother who joins the household – takes on the care of her sister, showing her all the love denied by her mother. Rose’s life is short – and Irene’s thereafter is largely shaped by that experience of loss, her attempts to make a life of her own constantly thwarted as she responds to a repeated need to share love and care with others.
From that outline, you might just be expecting relentless misery – but although you frequently ache for Irene, that’s really not the case. There are moments of lightness and absolute joy – in her relationships, in some of her life experiences, and in the precious moments with those she loves. And just a brief mention for the overarching timeline of Irene’s life – it’s one I share, so I was perhaps particularly engaged by the references placing the story in a context I recognised, with its prevailing attitudes and social limitations.
I know I can sometimes overuse the word “stunning” – but for this book, I really can’t come up with anything more appropriate. It’s absolutely compelling, a story superbly told, and an entirely unforgettable emotional experience. Without question, this was one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year.
“The Memory is a book that is both powerful and moving, exquisitely penetrating. I am drawn in, empathising so intensely with Irene that I feel every twinge of her frustration, resentment, utter weariness and abiding love.” Thorne Moore
“Judith Barrow’s greatest strength is her understanding of her characters and the times in which they live; The Memory is a poignant tale of love and hate in which you will feel every emotion experienced by Irene.” Terry Tyler
About the author
Although I was born and brought up in a small village on the edge of the Pennine moors in Yorkshire, for the last forty years I’ve lived with my husband and family near the coast in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, UK, a gloriously beautiful place.
I’ve written all my life and have had short stories, poems, plays, reviews and articles published throughout the British Isles. But only started to seriously write novels after I’d had breast cancer twenty years ago. Four novels safely stashed away, never to see the light of day again, I had the first of my trilogy, Pattern of Shadows, published in 2010, the sequel, Changing Patterns, in 2013 and the last, Living in the Shadows in 2015. The prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads was published in August 2017.
I have an MA in Creative Writing, B.A. (Hons.) in Literature, and a Diploma in Drama and Script Writing. I am also a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council’s Lifelong Learning Programme and give talks and run workshops on all genres.
When I’m not writing or teaching, I’m doing research for my writing, walking the Pembrokeshire coastline or reading and reviewing books for Rosie Amber’s Review Team #RBRT, along with some other brilliant authors and bloggers.