The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
During an unexpected late season snowstorm in 1964 in Lexington, Kentucky, Dr. David Henry makes a choice he will regret for the rest of his life. His pregnant wife goes into labor, but the route to the hospital is impassable. With the help of nurse Caroline Gill in his quiet clinic, he delivers his son Paul—and then, unexpectedly, Paul’s twin sister Phoebe, in whom David immediately recognizes the signs of Down syndrome. Anguished by the memories of his own sister’s death at age 12 from a heart condition, and the unrelenting grief of his mother, he asks Caroline to take Phoebe away and tells his wife their little girl was stillborn.
This is the secret that binds together yet separates the two families in Kim Edwards’ novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. We follow them for 25 years from four perspectives: David, whose protective instincts betray him, propelling him into photography as his solace; his wife Norah, who strives unsuccessfully to fill the void left by her lost child and guilt-ridden husband; Caroline, who builds a happy life with Phoebe despite the medical and educational obstacles they face; and later Paul, who resents his distant parents and mistakes their grief for blame.
A number of reviewers have remarked that the book is a bit too long. Still, the story is beautifully told, heartbreaking but hopeful. Like the photos that win acclaim for David, Edwards carefully uses light and shadow to capture the details of specific moments in the sequence of their lives: Norah’s panic over Paul’s broken arm; Phoebe’s joy at rescuing her kitten; Paul’s remorse at stealing the neighbor’s car. Lately I seem instinctively to be drawn to stories that turn out to be debut novels; this one, published in May, is one of the most compelling and compassionate I’ve read this year.
The personal twist is that my baby sister spotted this one and recommended it the day before our beautiful new niece was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. I am grateful that the cultural conventions of 1964 need not burden my niece, and that, like Phoebe, she will be surrounded by people who love her for being exactly who she was created to be.
P.S. The National Down Syndrome Congress has a lot of helpful public awareness resources online.