Paul Elias is dying.
The lump growing in his head is beyond his doctor’s ability to treat, and he will die between “anytime and three weeks.” It is a burden that he chooses to carry alone, without revealing it to anyone. In addition to his terminal diagnosis, he is faced with the disturbing fact that when he is gone, there will be no one left to care for his fickle 11-year-old granddaughter, Pearl, of whom he is the sole guardian. Even more disturbing is the fact that she disappeared as she reported on strange visits from a woman with silver hair whom no one else can see, who asks for help finding something she has lost. .
So far, Paul has managed to flee and barricade himself from his painful past. But facing his mortality and Pearl’s need for a guardian forces him to return with her to Nysa, the town where he grew up, and where Mary, his wife and Pearl’s grandmother, drowned in a lake. years ago. What will they find there? Will someone from Paul’s past be able to take care of Pearl when he’s gone? Will painful memories resurface, awakened by a familiar place? And will he finally find the peace that has eluded him since his wife’s death?
The weight of memory is the third novel that Shawn Smucker has written for an adult audience, after Distant starlight (winner of the CT Book Award for Fiction 2020) and These nameless things. In these books, as well as in two novels for young adults, Smucker seamlessly weaves elements of suspense and magical realism to explore the psychological baggage of his characters. The past is a prison for many of them, a parade of Jacob Marley overwhelmed by the chains of regret. Much of the suspense stems from the winding paths they take to free those chains. Smucker’s stories are rooted in the realities of pain and healing, of guilt and forgiveness, which gives the little touches of whimsy their poignant character.
As Paul and Pearl are inexorably drawn to Nysa, a shriveled and dying town that the world has long passed, they discover that Paul’s wife, Mary, was not the last to drown in Lake Nysa. In fact, a wave of drownings had sent most of the population packing, leaving an aura of death in the city. Smucker’s lush descriptions bring Nysa and her world-weary characters to life. The town has a familiar, lived-in quality reminiscent of the forgotten coal communities that dot the Appalachian Corridor near where Smucker lives in Lancaster, PA.
The sets in the novel are almost alive, breathing characters into themselves, a testament to Smucker’s gift for creating ambiance. Take water, for example, in its various forms. At first, he presents a placid face, both as Paul and Pearl cross the long Nysa Bridge and when they come to the glassy surface of the lake. But then he reveals his capricious nature with threatening rains and buried depths that become more threatening against the backdrop of drownings.
The concept of drowning itself becomes a kind of metaphysical vanity in The weight of memory. At one point, one character warns another: “Secrets are heavy things. They will train you if you don’t let them go. As if we are sliding deeper under the waves, it’s the secrets we keep that keep us apart and further away. As Paul tries to hide his terminal diagnosis from more and more people, including Pearl, he can feel the mass in his head growing and his isolation and fear of death deepening.
Just as there is an oppressive heaviness in keeping secrets, there is also a healing in bringing things to light. A common theme in Smucker’s writing is that his characters create more pain for themselves by holding onto things for fear of being discovered than they would by explaining to themselves. When the truth is revealed, there is often, but not always, a holy pain that takes away the burdens that come with it. At one point, a character says, “Grieving is hard and good. It is the disease and the medicine at the same time. Whether this grief heals or consumes is a crucial question in many of Smucker’s novels.
All along The weight of memory, interspersed flashbacks show the events leading up to Mary’s drowning. They come and go through the unfolding story like tides moving in and out, slowly uncovering essential parts of the story. As well as lifting unresolved weights off the characters’ shoulders, they also provide the reader with a sort of relief, slowly relieving the delicious tension of being held in suspense.
Rays of hope
Although heavy themes of psychological and spiritual distress run through Smucker’s novels, there is always a silver lining that pierces the darkness. In The weight of memory, that ray of hope is Paul’s granddaughter, Pearl. At the risk of being too over the top, her character is reminiscent of her mollusc-born namesake – a thing of beauty forged by the grief and adversity of the past. He’s a complex character, emotionally regressing in some ways, with a wild, vivid imagination that has yet to be encircled by the weight of reality hanging over Paul. In other ways, she is wise beyond her years and aware of things she has no reason to know.
The power of the bond between Paul and Pearl moves the story forward. The dynamic between the two is constantly changing, and Paul is sometimes exasperated and sometimes mystified by it. The intimacy of the setting exacerbates the unexplored tensions of their relationship. In some ways, Pearl is still the same little girl Paul raised, but in other ways, she morphs into someone Paul doesn’t fully recognize. He’s not sure how much he should care about his visions of the Silver Haired Woman and her tendency to vanish in the blink of an eye.
But there is also no doubt about the depth of their love and care for one another. They are both willing to make sacrifices for each other, and Pearl is often the only thing that keeps Paul from falling into despair. As the story unfolds, they both make tough decisions about how far they’re willing to go to heal the wounds of the past.
In his heart, The weight of memory is a story about the power of sacrificial love to overcome even the deepest cracks in the human soul and the heaviest psychological burdens we carry. There is a vein of lightness and whimsy running through the narrative, drawing the reader through the heavier themes of loss and regret. This sets it apart from regular thrillers, which often confuse austere heaviness with emotional and spiritual depth. The book has a poignant, slow release character that sneaks up on you in a calm and unhurried manner. The intrigue of unraveling the various mysteries will bring you to the table, but the heart will keep you.
Jonathan Sprowl is a Colorado Springs-based writer and editor.