Stephanie Jones: Book Review - Brushstrokes of Memory by Karen McMillan

Publish Date
Thursday, 30 March 2017, 1:04PM
By Stephanie Jones


Inspired by the case of a young British mother who woke from a coma and had forgotten the previous 14 years of her life, Karen McMillan’s Brushstrokes of Memory centres on Rebecca, who wakes in hospital believing she’s 32, happily married, self-employed as a painter and about to holiday in Europe.

In fact, she’s a decade older and separated from her husband, Daniel, and she sustained her injury falling down the stairs while working at a design firm with a miserable culture. It’s not made explicit how long she was unconscious; perhaps only hours. Of those missing 10 years there is not even, as Rebecca will say repeatedly, a brushstroke of memory.

Piecing together the fragments of fact and elusive memory, Rebecca becomes “a detective in [her] own life” who resorts to parsing the diary she kept during the lost period, when she developed breast cancer and endured a full mastectomy and reconstruction, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and oestrogen-blocking medication. This aspect of Rebecca’s story is McMillan’s own, and the physical and emotional stresses of a high-stakes confrontation with one’s own body are recounted frankly.

Indeed, it might be better for the missing decade to stay gone. By any measure, it’s been a bad time: Rebecca’s father has died and her mother is in care for Alzheimer’s; she and Daniel were about to sell their money-pit house; and she had quit the painting that was her life’s purpose

Seething beneath all this is a devastating truth which Daniel persuades a reluctant Julie, Rebecca’s best friend, to conceal. As a rushed and furtive hospital conversation reveals, they are the only two people who now know Rebecca’s life in full, and they have their own reasons – some generous, some self-interested – for wanting to bury some of it for good.

Impending doom takes the form of a handsome man named Justyn who won’t leave the recuperating Rebecca alone. He calls her at work and accosts her as she’s walking home. Of course, she doesn’t recognize him, and it’s because of the care Julie took to remove any trace of him from Rebecca’s phone that we know the threat he represents is not to her person but her marriage. That he’s the novel’s most thinly sketched character – ghostly, almost – makes sense, for his sole function in the narrative is to shock Rebecca into a review of her union with Daniel.

The knowledge that she had an affair is a cataclysmic blow to which Rebecca reacts with decidedly unfeminist self-abasement (“I’d betrayed my husband and all of my values. I was nothing more than a common slut”), but there’s worse to come. Daniel’s silence about an essential fact of Rebecca’s existence is as morally insupportable as it is practically absurd. The novel’s great question - what identity means when memory is absent – is paired with a lesson: you’d better know who you’re letting in close, lest you have to trust them even with your memory.

Like McMillan’s previous works of fiction, notably The Paris of the East and its sequel, Brushstrokes of Memory has a specific thematic preoccupation: love, hope, redemption, relief from pain. Neither hard-hitting cancer memoir (for that, see the late British journalist John Diamond’s C) nor the brand of marital drama that concludes with someone taking a nasty non-accidental tumble down the stairs, its ethos is antithetical to what Jerry Seinfeld once said was the rule of his sitcom (“No hugging, no learning”), and McMillan’s down-to-earth warmth makes following Rebecca’s story a safe experience for readers who prefer not to end in tears.


Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.

As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.

Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.

Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.


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