Thursday, February 26, 2009

A debut worth checking out...

The Story of Forgetting: A Novel
by Stefan Merrill Block

For reasons inexplicable, it took me weeks to pick up this novel and read the first sentence, but once I did I was hooked. I don't know what my problem was, but kudos to Stefan Merrill Block, because he drew me right into his story from the first pages.

The structure of the novel is that it jumps back and forth between two different characters, two different stories. The first is 68-year-old Abel Haggard, a modern-day hermit living exactly as he did decades ago on the distant outskirts of Dallas. Abel is basically reviewing his life inside his mind and agonizing over the mistakes he has made. Through his recollections you learn about his one true love, and how he lost everything he had. Now he's waiting for something... and trying to hang on by his fingertips to the life he has.

The second story revolves around 15-year-old geek, Seth Waller. I'm a 39-year-old woman, but I can't tell you how much I related to Seth. My social skills are considerably better, but we're both science nerds and were high school outcasts. Through Seth, we learn the story of his mother's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's in her mid-thirties. As painful as it is to watch her decline through Seth's eyes, it doesn't touch the sadness of the strained relationship he has with his father. Scenes between the two of them broke my heart, as each tried to deal in his own way with tragedy. Seth copes by embarking on a "scientific study" of his mother's illness.

While these two equally compelling narratives are unfolding, there are two more narrative threads weaved throughout the novel. One is the story of the orgin of the Alzheimer's mutation that plagues Seth's mother. It starts with patient number one and moves forward through history. The other thread is actually what ties the stories of Abel and Seth together. It's a series of tales of a mythological land called Isidora--stories that were told to both Abel and Seth in their childhoods.

It sounds like a lot is going on, but all the threads blend to form a satisfying cloth that is neither too busy nor boring. The novel moves at a fast pace, and I found myself (surprisingly) equally captivated by the tales of both Seth and Abel. They were rich and fully-formed characters with distinctive voices and personalities. When I started the novel I thought the mystery would be: How do their stories intersect? That really isn't it. You just want to see these tales through to their proper conclusion.

One more thing... Reading what I've written, this novel sounds like a real downer. I can't pretend the subject matter is happy, but my personal tolerance for tragedy is incredibly low, and I really enjoyed this promising debut.
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