The Memory Keeper's Daughter
by Kim Edwards


Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN 0143037145.
Reviewed by Marti Weisbrich
Posted on 07/07/2006

Fiction: Literary

Heart-wrenching betrayal, a haunting secret that forever colors the tapestry of a family and the power of simple, guileless love...these await the reader of Kim Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter.

Dr. David Henry, his wife, Norah, and their son Paul all pay for a decision made at the moment of Paul's birth. Forced to deliver his twin children due to a powerful snowstorm, David makes a choice to send away his daughter Phoebe as soon as he realizes that she has Down's syndrome. He tells his wife simply that Phoebe died at birth. He instructs his nurse Caroline to take Phoebe to an institution, but when Caroline arrives and sees the dismal place, she makes a life-changing decision to keep Phoebe as her own and raise her to become a person of worth and value.

Taking place over the span of twenty-five years from 1964 to 1989, the book shows how attitudes slowly changed regarding raising children with disabilities. The choice made in 1964 by David Henry does not seem as monstrous when taken in the context of the times. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that children born with mental disabilities should be institutionalized for their own good and the good of their families. It was not until parents fought for the rights of their children to be accepted as persons of value with no limitations placed on their potential, that the prevailing wisdom changed.

Edwards relates how she was given this story line years ago but let it lie since she had no experience with the subject matter. Not until she was asked to do a writing workshop for adults with mental challenges, through a group called "Minds Wide Open", did she feel compelled to write the story. At the workshop, she learned of the capabilities and triumphs of these adults. Her writing is searing, heart- tearing and so compelling that I read this book from start to finish in one day, I simply could not put it down. The title, The Memory Keeper's Daughter is so evocative of the raw pain throughout the book.

Caroline fights for the right to let Phoebe shine as a worthwhile individual. Photography becomes a metaphor for David's life. Unable to see life head-on, he resorts to viewing it through a camera lens, noting that "each person is an isolated universe." Phoebe's mother wanders through life with an ache that is ever present. Paul cannot seem to please his father and doesn't understand why.

In the end, it is Phoebe, the discarded daughter loved by her own family and friends, who holds the key to redemption. In one of the most powerful moments, toward the end of the book, Paul listens to his sister singing and says, "Waves of sound, waves of light; his father had tried to pin everything down, but the world was fluid and could not be contained."

(See another review of this book, here)

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