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A History of Forgetting

by Caroline Adderson

Caroline Adderson’s deeply thoughtful new novel uses a group of contemporary characters to raise some of the most difficult questions of our age: where did the hideous potency of Hitler’s Final Solution come from, and why does its malignancy live on?

In A History of Forgetting, the Holocaust is an eternal presence with echoes in the most unlikely people and places. The setting is present-day Vancouver. Middle-aged Malcolm has returned from France with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted boyfriend. Malcolm finds work in a downtown hair salon, where he befriends Alison, a naive girl who’s never given history a second thought. When one of their co-workers is killed by gay-bashing thugs, a darkness settles on Malcolm and Alison, obscuring the relevance of everyday life. As a result, they decide to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, in order to better understand the past.

For the fiction writer to do justice to these profundities a transcendent talent is required, one that cannot afford to get things wrong. While there is some beautifully pensive writing here, Adderson stumbles on a number of levels. The character of Malcolm rings true, but the author’s rendering of Alison is unbelievable. Within a few chapters this none-too-convincing, hollow girl starts speaking like a wise and bookish 40-year-old. In describing the hair salon, Adderson piles on the metaphors – it’s been decorated with faux classical statuary (history and forgetting‚ indeed) and readers are treated to fussy musings about techno music and body piercings (the latter pair seem to have become the serious writer’s signifiers of modern perversity). The bond between Alison and Malcolm doesn’t work, which undercuts the dread of the final sequence at Auschwitz. But there are morbidly felicitous touches, which almost make up for the failings at the core – the preternatural grimness of shorn human hair, for example: on the salon floor, and occupying whole rooms in the death blocks. Given a subject as unyielding as the Holocaust, for a writer’s reach to occasionally exceed her grasp is gratifyingly human.