A Thief in the House of Memory
Reviewed: March 27, 2006
By: Tim Wynne-Jones
Publisher: Groundwood Books
180 pages, $13.95
Tim Wynne-Jones has been playing with the notion of fallible recall since
his adult novel The Knot (1982) and his juveniles often feature teenagers
who are trying to sort themselves out according to memories that are not quite
the mirror of reality.
Declan Steeple is a sixteen year old who should be fairly content with his
life, but heís not. When we meet him he is living in a normal sort of middle
class home with his rich father and his sister and his fatherís friend, Birdie,
who used to be his motherís best friend.
His dad, Bernard, is odd, a rich man who choses to live a simple life, whose
apparent obsession in the building of historical models of great battles.
Birdie is a surrogate mom to the kids, which Dec resents, and she clearly
has designs on his dad, but she maintains her independence by continuing to
run her beauty salon.
His mother, Lindy, is the problem. Sheís gone, left one night years ago and
never came back. Eventually that made them leave Camelot, which is what Dec
calls the family mansion where they used to live. Dec and Sunny visit there
a lot; play in the rooms, read the books. Sunny doesnít remember the place
the way he does of course.
And sometimes Dec wishes he didnít remember it quite so vividly. Sometimes
Steeple Hall is more like a House of Memory for Dec.
His problems get more serious after the man dies up there, apparently having
fallen while trying to get something from on the top of a bookshelf. Would
the man even have been there if Dec hadnít hitched a ride with him in his
truck one day when he had to get home from school in a hurry to look after
six year old Sunny? Itís all a mystery, as is the fact that his dad doesnít
want him to know anything about the inquest, even though it was Dec and Sunny
who found the body.
Dec has been experiencing his own mysteries at Camelot: vivid daydreams,
almost hallucinations, that cause him to examine closely everything he had
ever been told about his mother and how it was that she left. These experiences
are bad enough, but when questioning his father and Birdie reveals that the
official version of Lindyís departure is, in fact, not what actually happened.
Dec sinks deeper into confusion and finds he has an even greater need to discover
all of the truth.
At the same time heís dealing with matters at school and facing the prospect
of losing his best friend to a scholarship in another town.
In a sense the truth, when it comes, is a fairly mundane story of a high
school romance gone bad and a marriage of two strangers that just could not
work. The way Wynne-Jones has structured the tale, however, it becomes a bit
of a detective story, with Dec pulling the bits and pieces together and dragging
reluctant revelations from the two adults who know the most about it.
I heard Wynne-Jones talking to Bill Richardson once, and he said that heíd
stopped writing adult fiction because having plots and more or less happy
endings had gone out of fashion, but that they were still okay in juvenile
books. Unlike many books for teens, Wynne-Jones tells stories in which adults
do have a role to play, even if they have as many burdens to bear as the young
protagonists, and he recognizes that relationships across generations are
important. Everything isnít wrapped up neatly with a sitcomís happy ending
in a Wynne-Jones novel, but you can usually see the light at the end of the