Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2008

The Memory Room (2007), by Christopher Koch

memoryroomChristopher Koch (AO) is one of my favourite writers, ever since I read The Year of Living Dangerously (1996) and Highways to a War (1995) (for which he won the Miles Franklin).  I have on my TBR Out of Ireland (1999) and The Doubleman (which also won the MF), but with 271 books waiting there I may not get to them for a while yet.

This year I moderated the ANZLL discussion for The Memory Room, which was shortlisted for the MF, and a very fine book it is too.  It’s about spies, but it’s not an espionage thriller, it’s a psychological study of the effects of secrecy on relationships, and on the mind.  Is it too much of a strain not to tell anyone some secrets?  Is it possible to marry and have a family while a spy?  What about the trust one should have with a partner?  These questions resonate throughout the story as Koch’s characters lead lives increasingly abnormal….


The central character, Vincent, is a nerd.  Koch seems to have gone out of his way to make him unattractive, with a kinky preoccupation with comic strip characters and tarot cards, and a strange girl friend called Erika, who’s a journalist.  She’s not a girlfriend, because he’s asexual, but he views her as one of Plato’s incarnations of Eros (the Good, the True and the Beautiful.  Methinks she may have been modelled in part on Jana Vendt, the cool and beautiful ice-maiden with a penchant for hard-hitting interviews).  But Erika is a disconcerting creature because she is intemperate and impulsive and while she’s as fond of secrecy for its own sake as Vincent is, she reveals things that she shouldn’t (a) to her fancy man, who turns out to be spying for the other side and (b) to the media, to further her career.  This aspect of the story gave rise to some interesting discussions about journalistic ethics and the matter of revealing information when it is thought to be in the ‘public interest’.  When is it not okay for a journalist to publish a scoop? Erika’s interview about North West Cape alerts the Russians that change is imminent, which upsets both the US and the Australian governments who didn’t want them to know about it. Given the politics of US installations on Australian soil, does a journalist owe any loyalty to her country in this situation?  Koch leaves this issue unresolved because Erika is clearly being irresponsible for reasons other than any political motivation when revealing this information.  She’s foolish about money, clothes, the too-expensive house in Canberra, and she chases men only to run away from them.  Is this the effect of child abuse?

Koch’s theme revolves around the idea that the effects of secrecy lead to isolation and insularity from real relationships  – which can lead to obsessions and a lack of judgement.  Vincent, after a stellar career, makes a serious error of judgement when he makes an abortive attempt to arrange asylum for Professor Lin, a Chinese academic, who despite the limitations on free speech he works under, doesn’t really want to disrupt the life of compromises he has made for himself.  Disciplined for this breach of duty and sent back home to ponder his future in Canberra, Vincent then breaks the official secrets act by duplicating and concealing ASIO files.  Just what can espionage agencies do to make their recalcitrants behave, I wonder?

Symbols abound in this strange and compelling story.  There are closed doors, locked filing cabinets, Vincent’s hideaway secret rooms and phone calls from call boxes (an anachronism now, eh?).  Canberra is enclosed in a valley while Tasmania-the-island breeds insularity. (Koch is Tasmanian, so I suppose it’s okay for him to imply this!)  There is twin-ness and there are orphans: Vincent the motherless child trying to replace his lost brother, and Erika and Royko’s uncanny resemblance, Erika trying to replace her father whom she both loved nad feared.  There are allusions to comic strips and superheroes, and limp efforts to mask the news media: 60 Minutes is on Channel 12 not Channel 9 but Koch’s scorn is obvious.

Koch structures the book with flashbacks and changes of narrator’s voice: There’s a 3rd person authorial narrator for Vincent’s childhood in the suburbs at the beginning; Bradley reads Vincent’s memoir; then there’s Vincent’s voice through his diaries;  and then the omniscient author is back again.  Erika doesn’t get a voice, but then Koch is not entirely comfortable with his female characters in any of the books I’ve read so far.  In The Memory Room, Erika is a damaged person, psychologically and emotionally screwed up because of the secret child abuse she had suffered.  It’s difficult to warm to any of these characters, even the urbane and relaxed Bradley, because of the atmosphere of suspicion that pervades the story.

The tension builds to the ultimate betrayal, and the reader is left wondering about what Vincent might do next, assuming there are no more dirty tricks by the authorities!  It’s a gripping book, superbly written.  Had it not been such a stellar field for the Miles Franklin, it may well have won….

Author: Christopher Koch
Title: The Memory Room
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf, 2007
ISBN: 9781741667295, hbk., 432 pages
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Readings $49.95


  1. Hi Lisa

    Thanks for your comment. I think your blog is great and have added it to my favourites.

    To add boxes like ‘What am I reading?’ and ‘Get your own’ I created text widgets under the widgets menu. From there I just added links as per normal.

    I hope this helps. If not drop me another line,


  2. Thanks to Kev Parker of Literary Awards Australia ( for letting us know that The Memory Room has won the 2008 $20,000 CAL Waverley Library “The NIB”. A well deserved award!


  3. […] reminded me of The Memory Room one of my favourite books by the late Christopher Koch.  Set in Canberra, The Memory Room explores […]


  4. […] Revolution.   Paranoia about communism also gets a run in Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light and The Memory Room by Christopher Koch.  Proper historians will quibble with some justification that novelists have […]


  5. […] number of Australian books exploring Cold War history, such as Document Z by Andrew Croome, by The Memory Room by Christopher Koch, and Katherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist.  The lessons for our time are […]


  6. […] 2008 Christopher Koch, The memory room (novel) (Lisa’s review) […]


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