By Trezza Azzopardi
(Grove, 271 pp., $23)
The British seem to specialize in novels about lost souls. In recent years they have produced a score of books, notably Edward Carey's Observatory Mansions (2000) and Ali Smith's Hotel World (2001), that reveal the inner lives of characters whom society has forgotten. Trezza Azzopardi's new novel, Remember Me, continues this trend with the story of Winnie Foy (née Lillian Patricia Richards), a 72-year-old homeless woman who retreated from the world over five decades ago; since then the world has acknowledged her existence only to condemn her.
The novel is a series of Winnie's memories triggered when an unknown woman enters the house where Winnie has been squatting for years and steals Winnie's small cache of possessionsa feather, a locket, a brooch, a shoe and some hairkeepsakes from her adolescence whose significance are revealed over the course of the novel. When she sets out to find the thief and reclaim her belongings, Winnie is beset by recollections of her long buried past, and the story begins to reveal the succession of traumatic events and betrayals that sent her life into a downward spiral.
The title, expressing a plaintive wish not to be forgotten, signals the novel's concern with how people like Winnie disappear from sight. Azzopardi artfully develops this theme by using recurring motifs that illustrate how Winnie's identity is stripped away, little by little, until no self remains. The way Winnie's names are given to her and then taken away is the first indication that her identity is indeterminate. Her parents call her Patricia, or Pats, but when her mother dies and her father leaves her with her grandfather, that name fades away. Her grandfather calls her Lillian, after her mother, and his boarder, the charming Mr. Stadnik, prefers Princess, but neither old man sticks around long enough to make those names permanent. At 72, Winnie is essentially nameless: ". . . [I]n the end it will make no difference to me what I am to be called, because my fate is that I won't stay with a name at all."
Winnie's distinctive red hair is another marker of her identity that is taken away. Throughout the novel, she is told to hide it, by dye or wig, so that she won't stand out. "You've got Telltale hair, Lillian," her grandfather explains. "So we'll put it away and then there won't be any tales to tell." The grandfather is trying to protect her from her classmates' cruel teasing, but by hiding her "Telltale" hair, a visible sign of her difference, he also diminishes her personality. Without stories about ourselves, we lose our identities.
Azzopardi recounts the loss of possessions to make the same point about the dissolution of self. As little as Winnie owns, she clings to objects because they connect her to loved ones who have left her: "I have been taught to believe in artifacts: to balance them, store the person in an object." In this light, Winnie's search for her stolen possessions represents her struggle to regain the last remnants of her selfhood.
The middle portion of the novel, after Winnie/Lillian is sent to live in the country during World War II, is replete with incidents that unfold according to a predictable pattern: she is forced into a lonely situation but begins to see the possibility of happiness just beyond the horizon, only to have her nascent hopes squashed before she can express them fully. In the most excruciating of these, Winnie briefly finds love with Joseph Dodd, a fellow castaway from her hometown, and they dream of running away together to the sea. Instead, she gets pregnant and is sent back to her grandfather in shame, and Joseph vanishes from her life. These pathetic scenariosincluding a stint as a mystic who communes with the dead, a career she quits when she sees Joseph fall to his deathcombine to devastate her will and her sanity. Her misery is so severe that readers will be hesitant to judge her when, years later, she commits a horrible crime. Grim stuff, indeed.
The story's dark material is matched by Azzopardi's unsparing prose. Winnie describes her trials, like having to forage for food to survive during the war, with straightforward specificity that at times achieves rugged lyricism. "We eat what there is, where we find it," she explains. "Scouring the earth for vegetables, we walk minute steps along the side of the verge where the beets and potatoes were bagged. Nearly all are gone; the few that are left behind are wormy and black."
Remember Me is Azzopardi's sophomore effort after The Hiding Place (2000), her highly praised debut. Like the new novel, The Hiding Place describes the misfortunes of an impoverished family and depicts the lingering psychological pain of being abandoned as a child, but it is also peopled with a cast of memorable characters who retain our interest even when we condemn their actions. (In one harrowing scene, a father sells his daughter to a gangster to pay off gambling debts.) By contrast, Remember Me focuses almost entirely on Winnie's experiences, so the novel's appeal rests on Azzopardi's ability to render Winnie's mind in a compelling way as she recalls her early years of desperation and shattered hope.
This approach has two potential pitfalls, neither of which Azzopardi completely avoids: It can be boring, and it can become unremittingly sad. Limiting the narration to what Winnie understands at 12 or 13 means paying attention to a girl's whimsies and not drawing any conclusions that would be outside of her ken. Azzopardi uses these constraints effectively to capture Winnie's changing moods and growing awareness, but she also tests our patience. Some readers will bridle at how long it takes Winnie to realize, for instance, that her mother is insane or that her father is an ineffectual solipsist.
As for the story itself, Azzopardi again risks losing readers who need to sense a modicum of hope even in the tale of a lost soul. Remember Me feels accurate socially (Winnie's story is certainly repeated often enough on American streets), and Azzopardi persuasively tracks the ineluctable crushing of a young woman's spirit by an uncaring world, but she offers too few compensatory pleasures to offset the pain of following Winnie's descent. Fiction can be a valuable medium for telling stories about the underclass, but this bleak novel likely will not attract a wide readership and therefore will do little to raise the visibility of people like Winnie.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.