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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

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 he’s 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 father’s friend, Birdie, who used to be his mother’s 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. She’s 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 doesn’t remember the place the way he does of course.

And sometimes Dec wishes he didn’t 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 hadn’t 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? It’s all a mystery, as is the fact that his dad doesn’t 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 Lindy’s 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 he’s 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 he’d 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 isn’t wrapped up neatly with a sitcom’s happy ending in a Wynne-Jones novel, but you can usually see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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