Fourteen years have passed since Christy Ann Conlin wowed readers and critics alike with Heave, her debut novel about an independent, hard-drinking woman on the Bay of Fundy coast. Conlin returns to this setting with The Memento, a sprawling gothic romance in the vein of Eudora Welty by way of V.C. Andrews, with hints of Downton Abbey and a Susan Hill ghost story thrown in.
Our narrator is Fancy Mosher, the 12th child of Marilyn Mosher, former maid at Petal’s End, the once-grand estate of the eccentric Parker family. Marilyn is a notoriously promiscuous alcoholic whose eldest child, John Lee, died as a toddler. The novel’s first three quarters take place over the summer Fancy turns 12, during which she learns she possesses the ability to see the dead: an accursed family “memento” passed down by her grandfather.
Fancy lives and works at Petal’s End, alongside her loyal friend Arthur Comeau and a woman named Loretta, who serves as a stand-in mother figure. The Parkers consist of the elderly matriarch, Marigold; her daughter-in-law, Estelle, whose late husband was a suspected homosexual; the beautiful Pomeline, Estelle’s 18-year-old daughter; and Pomeline’s sickly and mischievous sister Jenny, who was conceived with the assistance of fertility drugs. Add a mysterious family doctor, an enthusiastic cousin and his Japanese bride, a charming mechanic, and a tawdry maid, and you have a recipe for illicit rendezvous, murderous desires, and questions about lineage and inheritance.
All of which sounds thrilling, but Conlin is her own worst enemy when it comes to her story’s execution. The entire novel is narrated in Fancy’s folksy vernacular, which abounds in clichéd phrases. “What goes around comes skipping right back around,” Fancy states, after considering her grandfather’s words of warning regarding the family memento: “You can run but you can’t hide.” Marigold counsels that “beauty can be such a curse,” and when Fancy returns to Petal’s End after a long absence, she vows to start “living life on the straight and narrow.”
There are some truly harrowing moments –
there’s a scene in which a character’s face is burned with scalding rose water, and another in which someone’s fingers are crushed by a piano cover – but these only serve to diminish the potency of the story’s supernatural elements. The ghosts in the book often appear as little more than raggedy spectres, or “a glimpse of a face, with white swirling around.”
Moreover, the novel is imbalanced. Part One unfolds slowly over a single summer, and many important plot points are revealed through drawn-out paragraphs of expository dialogue. In Part Two, years pass in a matter of sentences; the effect is like watching a film on fast-forward, until an adult Fancy returns to Petal’s End and questions are hastily answered. The result is a tangled melodrama that collapses under its own discomposure.