Title: The Memory Collectors
Author: Kim Neville
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: March 16, 2021
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
One Sentence Summary: Ev can feel the emotions people leave behind on objects, and so can Harriet, but the women differ on how they view their gift while the dangerous past of a third with the same gift looms over them.
Immediately after reading the book description, I knew I had to read this one. It reminded me of Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, my favorite magical realism read, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, which I enjoyed more in theory than in actuality. I loved the idea of objects holding the emotions and memories of their former owner and was intrigued by the dark past of the third person with the same gift as Ev and Harriet. The Memory Collectors turned out to really deliver on the magical realism and I really enjoyed the focus on family and the effects of the same gift on different people. It also shed a new light on hoarding that I found really interesting.
A Story of Gifts and Family
When they were very young, Ev and her younger sister Noemi’s parents died. But their father had a special gift that allowed him to feel emotions from objects, a gift he passed down to Ev. As an adult, Ev thinks of the emotions as stains, as something to be either used for her own gain or be destroyed. She holds her gift at a distance and does everything in her power to keep herself sanitized from them.
Harriet, much older than Ev, is a hoarder, but only keeps the objects with a brightness, an emotion left behind by its owner powerful enough to call to her. She can’t bear to give up her bright objects, but it’s affecting her neighbors.
It’s sheer coincidence that Ev and Harriet meet, that they discover they have the same gift. Harriet is desperate to teach her, to make her love the bright objects as much as she does. But Ev sees them as stains and Harriet’s massive collection as terrifying. Noemi also has her own suspicions about Harriet, her own secrets, as it turns out the three women are more connected than they thought and need each other to keep them from spiraling down the dark path a third person with Ev and Harriet’s gift took years before.
The Memory Collectors surprised me by how intense it was. Focused on emotions and memories, I thought it might be a bit dreamy, a bit magical, with a bit of an edge. Something pretty like Garden Spells. But I was so wrong. This story sucked me in, made me switch sides between Ev, Harriet, and Noemi the entire time.
Told by Ev and Harriet, I loved how it took the same gift and took it down different roads with the two women. It created a clash of wills and a whole host of secrets that helped make this a compelling read. There’s so much tension, but also so many lighter moments. I loved watching the characters come to love and suspect each other for various things throughout the story. They became an odd family of sorts, and not without their own squabbles and side taking.
But my favorite part was just in how it all unraveled. It was all so well-timed, so perfect, but never contrived. Every moment of the story builds up to something else. I could have done without the back and forth in time from before and after Ev and Noemi’s parents died and the darkness shrouding the third person with the gift felt a little weak, but it all did come together by the end. Every bit lent a little more meaning, a little more depth, so I left the story quite satisfied.
The Memory Collectors is also a story of family and sisterhood as much as it is about objects holding emotions and memories. There’s a push and pull between Ev and Noemi, a wall of secrets between them. Ev wants to be the consummate big sister, but Noemi is determined to do things her own way. Their family is wrapped tight to the plot of this book with Ev and Noemi at the center. The gift divides them almost as much as it divides Ev and Harriet, but the resolution to each turns out to be quite different from the other, and completely natural. I loved that everything happened so naturally, that the characters drove the story, that it was one step back and two steps forward the whole way through.
A Kind of Dysfunctional Family
While Ev and Harriet are the narrators of The Memory Collectors, Noemi and Owen, an older friend of Ev’s, have large roles as well. They created something of an artificial family, but their ties are more tenuous and their relationships hampered and shadowed by secrets.
Ev is really into keeping her life sanitary. She’s almost obsessed with it, and tries desperately to shake her family past off. She’s doing the best she can to cope with life and the gift it has dealt her, but I think she’s also really curious about what else she could do with it, what she could be capable of, and suspicious of how Harriet handles their gift. Her need to understand, to make a living, and to protect her sister really push the story forward, so I found her to be the most interesting character. The only thing I was puzzled by was her being half Chinese. I didn’t ever get the sense that she was even part Asian and it only seemed like a useful thing to the telling of the story than something integral or defining to Ev herself.
But Harriet is quite a character herself. The gift runs in her family, so she inherited her mother’s collection and continually adds to her own. I loved how she thought of objects as being bright instead of stains, adding a light color to the whole story. Harriet is absolutely a hoarder and I loved how the author and the story handled the issue through her. I couldn’t help but view hoarding in a completely different way while reading this book, and I loved Harriet’s struggles. I could feel them so well, her attachment to her bright objects, but she also isn’t a fool, so her story read something like therapy sessions.
Noemi and Owen also added new angles to the story. As characters without the gift but who are closely tied to Ev and Harriet, they view the objects in a very different light. They view Ev and Harriet differently. Noemi felt like a loose cannon, but she kept things interesting. Owen was more of a solid rock, but even he was a little shaky. I did really enjoy his relationship with Harriet, though, and he added a bit of softness and love and acceptance into the mix.
The Memory Collectors is set on the Western side of Canada in Vancouver. I don’t know much about the area, but didn’t get much of a Canadian feel. It felt like it could have been any city near the ocean, though the book did mention other nearby places to help place it on the map.
Clearly, this book is set in a large city. It gives a great sense of there being lots of buildings, lots of people and traffic, and various parts of the city different from each other. The Chinatown market felt busy and full of haggling. The area Harriet grew up in felt stately and old. The alleys were prevalent as Ev and Owen spent a lot of time dumpster diving. There were plenty of places for all of them to run to and hide out.
The Memory Collectors impressed me with how it so deftly wove magical realism in. It felt like I was reading a fiction novel, but the magic was most definitely there. It was a nice balance and I really enjoyed all the tension, family drama, and secrets that were thrown in. Ev and Noemi’s ancestry threw me a bit, but I think that was the only thing that really bothered me. The end felt a little drawn out as well, but, then again, I really couldn’t stop reading it. This is the kind of story that dug its claws in and held on. I was fascinated and really, really wanted to know how it all turned out, how the gift would ultimately affect them all. Overall, a surprisingly intense read, but one I had a hard time putting down.
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Thank you to NetGalley and Atria Books for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.