The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Author: Kim Edwards
Kentucky Literary Award for Fiction in 2005 | Honored with the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction Award at the 2008 British Book Awards | 2006 Book of the Year by USA Today
In a heartbreaking story of deceit, lies and redemption, we come to know the story of people whose destinies are tangled from beginning to end. In The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the lies and secrets that bind the characters together are rooted in one fateful decision that Dr. David Henry made on a winter night in 1964. The ethical dilemmas abound as the characters confront certain events with difficult and impulsive decisions. We come to know how lies and secrets become tools of self-destruction and explore how a person’s decision mold his very existence and the lives of people around him.
Sometimes our decisions and motives evolve into something destructive despite our best intentions. That is the dilemma that Dr. David Henry faced throughout the novel. Dr. Henry is a kind, helpful and hard working doctor who strives to ‘heal the world’, attending to poor patients without question. But in the midst of these good deeds is a secret he keeps about the daughter he gave away. We become witnesses to the family’s destruction and the reason behind this. He is consumed by this secret and gravely affects his relationship with his wife and son. The tension and unspoken anger both his wife and son had for him is perceptible throughout the novel. He plunged himself into work and barely spends time with his family. His determination not to admit his fault tears his family apart and puts a distance between them. He becomes lonely and detaches himself because of guilt. The repercussions of this decision plagues him until his death.
It’s very easy to condemn David Henry for this act but I still sympathized with him. The very reason that he knew what might happen to his daughter puts him in a ‘defensive’ and ‘protective’ mode. He recounts the emotional destruction his mother experienced, as well as his own grief and longing when his young sister died. He doesn’t want his wife to experience that pain. He wants to save his wife from the difficulties of raising a chronically ill child and also the anguish she will feel if they lose their child. Despite these intentions, David realized that what he did was wrong. Ironically, what he sought to protect his wife from led to his family’s destruction.
Norah Henry, David’s wife never got over her daughter’s ‘death’. She sought for David’s help in overcoming her grief but her husband seemed to detach himself from the very fact that their baby ‘died’. David becomes a mystery to her. Her sister Bree provides her with the support she needed and pushed her to confront these difficulties. Her loneliness impels her to pursue a job and other ‘acts’ that proved to alienate David and her son more. I would like to think of these as acts of defiance or setting aside a grief she can never overcome. David is aware of Norah’s ‘mistakes’ but he believes his own mistakes are much darker compared to Norah.
Caroline Gill, the nurse that assisted in Norah Henry’s delivery and who was tasked to take Phoebe to an institution, is the moral compass of the story. In a selfless act of kindness, Caroline changes the course of Phoebe’s life forever. Caroline manages to provide a good life for Phoebe. She raises Phoebe with unconditional love, helps her gain independence and fights for her right to an education. Her life with Phoebe proves to be the opposite of what David’s family is experiencing. Her quiet life has slowly transformed to a life full of love and contentment. When she confronts David in one part of the book she fearlessly tells David,“You missed a lot of heartache, sure. But David, you missed a lot of joy.” That struck me and pretty much summed up what I felt was David’s regrettable loss.
Photography is a prevailing theme in the book. Kim Edwards used this to expound the imagery of the characters’ traits and thoughts. The act of photography becomes a metaphor and an exploration of life itself. In one occasion, David Henry tells his son Paul that “Photography is all about secrets. The secrets we all have and will never tell.” David uses photography to create some ‘purpose’ in his life. He becomes obsessed with it, further pulling him away from the people he loves the most. More than that though, photography served as an anchor for David who seemed to enjoy capturing fleeting moments. It becomes some sort of comfort for him to capture these moments knowing that he had missed both of his children’s lives.
One thing that I did not like is the fact that Paul and David never had the chance to forgive each other. I felt that Paul is so determined to detach himself that he forgot that his father needed him too. I just wished there was some closure and a tiny bit of forgiveness coming from Paul. It shows how fragile the relationship between a parent and a child can be, but more than that, it’s a realization that our parents need us too.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter explores humanity, family, decisions, regrets and our capacity to love and forgive. It explores the detrimental consequences of hidden lies and the power of secrets. It also provides us a story of redemption and finding strength. The story is beautifully written and truly engaging to have kept me turning the pages. The emotions it evoked in me further proves the power of the story and the skill Kim Edwards has. Despite its minor flaws, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a good read. Although it was a sad story, even depressing and frustrating at times, it did not leave me wretched and drained. There was always that sense of hope permeating the book. I enjoyed reading it a lot and will treasure the beauty of its story for years to come.
I’m no expert but it’s one of the novels that was successfully adapted into a movie. Despite the minor differences, the movie did the book justice. I also want to say that the ending made much more sense compared to the book. What I really liked is the forgiveness shown by David’s son towards the end of the film. Paul becomes a sort of strength and guiding light for Norah in the film. The final scene was very touching and it made me cry.
- Kim Edward’s first job was in a nursing home. Even if she stayed in that job for only a short while, it made a strong impression on her. [Source]
- Kim Edwards was born in Killeen, Texas but grew up in Skaneateles, New York, in the heart of the Finger Lakes region.
- She received a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2002. She has taught in the MFA programs at Warren Wilson and Washington University, and is currently an assistant professor at The University of Kentucky.
- The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was inspired by a story a pastor related to her. In Kim Edward’s words: “It was just a few sentences, about a man who’d discovered late in life that his brother had been born with Down syndrome, placed in an institution at birth, and kept a secret from his family, even from his own mother, all his life. He’d died in that institution, unknown. I remember being struck by the story even as she told it, and thinking right away that it really would make a good novel. It was the secret at the center of the family that intrigued me. Still, in the very next heartbeat, I thought: Of course, I’ll never write that book.”
- In a 2007 Barnes and Noble interview, Kim Edwards mentioned that ‘she loves swimming and loves being near water’.
I read this book for the following 2014 reading challenges (check out my progress here):