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A Thief in the House of Memory

by Tim Wynne-Jones

Thief in the House of Memory is a tantalizing title, almost vibrating with multiple possibilities and meanings. Although the novel is not the most deeply satisfying one of his career so far, it’s still true to say that anything by Tim Wynne-Jones is bound to be a rewarding read. A two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award, Wynne-Jones is one of Canada’s most accomplished and recognized authors for young adults. In Thief, he teases out half a dozen strands of story from that seductive title and expertly weaves them back into a clear and suspenseful narrative.

Nearly every character in the book, it turns out, is “stealing” memories from the abandoned Steeple family mansion on the hill. It’s a pity that the most obvious thief – a truck driver who actually tries to rob the house – is dead by page 24; he’s one of the most vivid characters in the book, equal parts wolfish menace and glittering charm. The scene in which Declan, the unhappy 15-year-old protagonist, hitches a ride home from school with this unknown truck driver is prickly with unease, embarrassment, and mounting fear.

Declan, his rigidly reserved father Bernard, his five-year-old sister Sunny, and the father’s girlfriend Birdie all live in a recently built bungalow on the Steeple estate. The ancestral house on the hill – the House of Memory – was abandoned, by Bernard’s decree, after the children’s mother Lindy ran away five years earlier. “Ghost Central,” quips one of Declan’s schoolmates when he sees a picture of the mansion in the local paper, and the description is dead on. Bernard has tried to seal the past in cellophane: no one is supposed to move or change anything in the house, now a museum to the family’s illustrious past.

The ghosts and the memories, however, are stirred up like the disturbed dust when the thief breaks in. Although Declan has long accepted his mother’s absence, he now begins to fret about silences, unanswered questions, and the mysterious connection between the dead thief and the vanished mother. He torments himself with escalating – and wildly exaggerated – suspicions about his father. And, night and day, he prowls the weirdly preserved mansion, hypnotically drawn by hallucinatory encounters with his mother. More than flashbacks, these are eerie re-enactments of fraught scenes in Declan’s childhood. Wynne-Jones brilliantly shows us Declan’s helpless, anxious love for his volatile mother, even while we squirm with the painful awareness of her carelessness and cruelty toward her children.

Wynne-Jones never puts a word wrong. Whether he’s making our skin tingle with unease in the dark mansion, or making us chortle at the witty, affectionate banter of Declan’s school friends – a remarkably appealing crowd of bright individualists – his prose is polished to a gleam. He has perfect pitch for youthful dialogue. He can slip from confident lyricism (“The sun poured in like honey on his toast and made his orange juice glow like something with a current running through it”) through the urgently suspenseful prose of a thriller to awkwardly touching adolescent poetry without a false or clumsy note.

Wynne-Jones has visited this territory before, and to stronger effect, tracking the emotional damage inflicted on a teenage boy by the misguided keeping of family secrets. Thief has strong echoes of Stephen Fair and The Boy in the Burning House, which both feature a youth struggling with similar nightmares about a lost family member. But both those earlier novels seem more persuasive and compelling. The Boy in the Burning House is a fast-moving thriller with a plausibly creepy villain and a memorable female character in Ruth Rose. Stephen Fair sparkles with wordplay and draws, with delightful delicacy, an evolving relationship between the protagonist and an equally interesting girl. In the case of Thief, the distant father seems a hastily drawn caricature – preoccupied with his toy soldiers, stiffly unbending in his son’s presence, and unconvincing (even uninteresting) as a potential villain. Declan himself is not given the same richness of interior life as Wynne-Jones’s earlier heroes; he is most poignantly alive as the frantic eight-year-old whose mother toys with his emotions.

We expect teenagers to be less interested in their parents than in themselves, their peers, and their own futures. Only a damaging early loss or emotional injury can divert the adolescent from that self-interest and stall him or her in an obsession with the familial closet. Wynne-Jones mines that emotional impasse in novel after novel to explore the perplexities of finding and recognizing the truth, of understanding the self in relation to others, and rising to the challenges of friendship. Although his protagonists are always boys, Wynne-Jones is one of those too rare authors who can draw girls (of any age) with equal complexity, intelligence, and vivacity.

He is, in short, always engaging and thought-provoking, and should be particularly affirming for bright students who decline to run with the pack. A distinguishing feature of his work is that his young adult characters are as attracted to one another by their ideas, wit, and intellectual energy as by their physical charms. Wynne-Jones also refuses to traffic in the cheap baubles of pop culture (no product placements, TV trivia, or fashion labels in his fiction) while remaining appealingly accessible. Perhaps Wynne-Jones has now mapped this particular continent of teenage angst in sufficient detail that he can move on to deploy his gifts of discernment in fresh fictional territory.