Review: The Memory Stones, Caroline Brothers
The Memory Stones
Australian Caroline Brothers has already shown she can tell a great story. Her 2012 novel Hinterland was a moving and vivid tale of refugee children struggling for survival. Brothers' skill lay in knitting together the disparate strands of their story, weaving in some highly evocative descriptive passages.
In her new novel she ramps up those skills even further. It is a heart-wrenching, beautifully related saga of loss in the "dirty war" of the Argentine junta of the 1970s and 80s.
Like Hinterland, the focus of The Memory Stones is mainly on the children. Osvaldo Ferrero is a successful surgeon in Buenos Aires. His wife Yolanda is a teacher. They have two daughters; the sensible Julieta, who now lives in Miami, and the independent and determined Graciela. On the face of it, the family would not seem to be natural enemies of the new military regime.
Yet Osvaldo has to flee after the publication of some mildly satirical cartoons. Graciela and her boyfriend Jose, both of whom work with the poor and under-privileged, are abducted and swept into the black hole of government internment camps.
The world is now very aware of what occurred in these torture chambers as a result of Spanish lawyer Baltasar Garzon's lawsuit in 1997, and the campaign by Argentine mothers of the desaparecidos, or the ones who "disappeared".
Osvaldo, now in Europe, follows Yolanda's attempts to find out what has happened to their daughter. For years, there is no news. Then, gradually and piecemeal, tiny scraps of information seep out.
Brothers' structure is naturally episodic. With Osvaldo in Europe and Yolanda in Buenos Aires, and other characters living elsewhere, she pulls the strings magnificently into a tight structure. The result is a narrative that is a page-turner, a detective story in which we don't know the outcome right up until the last pages.
Brothers excels at describing human reactions. Yolanda's confusion is beautifully caught when "she feels the earth turn and the night fall and somewhere a tide receding as she sits on into the darkness, trying to think what to do".
She delineates the stages of loss without knowledge — from the grief, confusion, denial, numbness and anger, to the volatility of emotional range. At times she lapses into sentimentality, but she recovers in time.
Brothers writes with great precision and occasional humour. Wicker chairs "slump like old ladies at a Christmas party" and "curly hair is receding like scrub in the path of a sand dune".
This is an old-fashioned tale, beautifully told, expertly controlled and finely wrought. It is an intricate, domestic tapestry, sharp with detail and bright with colour.