Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 15, 2014

The Memory Trap (2013), by Andrea Goldsmith

‘Is it any good?’ asked The Spouse, when I told him I’d finished The Memory Trap this morning.  He was friends with Andrea Goldsmith at university, and loves to hear about her books when I read them.  A reader of non-fiction, he doesn’t read novels, but he’s always interested in the ones that trigger thoughtful discussion about issues and ideas, and last night, in the car en route to see a production of The King and I, we’d talked about a key theme in this book, the purpose and meaning behind public monuments and memorials…

‘It’s very good,’ I replied.  ‘It’s one of those books that you’re really sorry to finish.’

I feel bereft, now that I’ve come to the end.  The Memory Trap is a character-driven novel, and I’ve come to know and be very interested in its characters.  They’re like people you meet when you travel, and you promise each other that you’ll keep in touch but of course you never do, yet you find yourself wondering about them long afterwards.

Around the world, vast amounts of money are spent on public monuments and memorials, and as I discovered from fellow-readers when I posted a Sensational Snippet from The Memory Trap, Goldsmith has invented a marvellous job for her central character: Nina Jameson is an international consultant on memorial projects.  She is based in London where the novel begins, but her marriage has just failed, and at 40-something, she comes home to Melbourne when the TIF (Together in Freedom) memorial project comes along.   She thinks it’s a project from hell – doomed to failure because its aims are so nebulous – but she feels drawn home and so she succumbs to the offer.

In Melbourne, she visits her sister Zoe.  Zoe’s marriage to Elliot Wood is rotting beneath a thin crust of convention but as family Nina is privy to Elliot’s caustic spite that’s usually concealed beneath the public veneer.  It makes the couple’s company painful, especially so when a trip down to the family beach-house turns out to be Zoe’s intrigue to meet up with Ramsay Blake, love of Zoe’s life since childhood.  Ramsay is a virtuoso pianist with an international career, but his obsession with his music makes him narcisstic, selfish and purposefully helpless.  His stepfather George Tiller is lured into his orbit and becomes his helpmeet, pushing aside all others including Ramsay’s brother Sean.  Zoe has no hope of reciprocal love from Ramsay, but she pursues it all the same, rationalising his more-than-appalling behaviour towards her, and damaging her relationship with Elliot.

Nina, who fancies herself in a wise-adviser role, remonstrates with Zoe.  Nina knows that the toxic state of her older sister’s marriage is a no-go area, she knows that her own lost marriage was no reason to be meddling in Zoe’s but she can’t help herself.  There’s a wonderful scene where (although Nina is the same age as Sean) she tries out the wise Older Sister Routine with him as well, so much so that he flees into the loo at the café to escape her bombardment.  Professionally she’s a bit too assertive too, as the good folk from TIF find out when they have their first meeting with her.  Not fully in command of her emotions because she herself is (metaphorically speaking) memorialising her own marriage, she adjusts her plan to be forthright about her concerns when she meets these idealistic people who are proposing a project that in London she had dismissed as:

one of those vague, feel-good projects which, in the abstract, promises to fix the evils of the world: a multicultural, inter-faith committee proposing a monument to promote religious tolerance, unity in diversity, individual courage, and freedom for all.  A heap of stone with a water feature and a few well-chosen words to right the wrongs of the world – as if that was all it required.  The naivety of what this monument was to achieve was irritating rather than touching, and the camaraderie enjoyed by the organising committee in regular meetings and tours to religion’s hotspots wouldn’t survive the first stage of a project like this.  (p. 27)

Why then does Nina take the project on?  Because she thinks that it would be a weakness to come home without a job , without a legitimate reason.  She doesn’t recognise that her bruised soul needs nurturing from family. 

But the work she plans to do is to scuttle the project, so her response to the committee is merely to change strategy:

Nina encouraged them to talk, to explain their rationale for the monument.  She did not want to be seen to be diminishing their project by attacking it or injecting damp realism into their ambitions.  She hoped that if they talked long enough, guided by strategic questions from her, they would eventually come to see not the folly of this project – never folly, not with such admirable intentions – but the impossibility of it.

But it doesn’t take them long to discern her hostility to the project.  ‘Did we choose the right person?’ they ask themselves as she leaves.  Indeed…

The cunning way in which Goldsmith undercuts Nina’s beliefs about herself is matched by her skill in gradually revealing the other characters to be more than they had at first seemed, all of these interactions laced together by the entrapments of memory.  Chasing up old lovers is always a bad idea, and schadenfreude is an unattractive (though sometimes irresistible) human frailty.  Making judgements about who’s at fault in someone else’s marriage isn’t a good idea either, and sometimes there’s more truth in the clear-eyed assessments of teenage children than there is in the judgements of those supposedly older and wiser.  (There’s a surprising amount of humour in this novel, given its themes!)

Bereavements come in many forms and in The Memory Trap Goldsmith explores public displays of grief as in the post-Diana spectacle; humble memorials to road-accident victims; and the ways in which public memorials can be interpreted in different ways.

Memorials speak to those wishing to listen, who have a reason to listen. … but what they say, the information they impart, the understandings they promote, tend to speak to an individual’s life and experiences as well as their needs and longings at the moment they stand before the monument.  Monuments … are like books.  A book read at a particular time can leave you untouched, and yet at another time it can strike at the heart of you.  (p. 207)

(While I knew many of the monuments and memorials to which Goldsmith refers, I confess to wanting to Google some of them.  Is there really a Diana and Dodi memorial at Harrods with her unwashed liqueur glass on display?  Is such grotesque kitsch really possible?  My goodness, yes it is.)

Alongside the abstract discussions about these public manifestations of grief, Goldsmith depicts the slow torment of loss in economical ways.  Nina naïvely believes that she can insulate herself from memory with a change of scene and the absence of memorabilia, while Beth, surrounded by reminders of her lost husband finds them little comfort all the same :

When Scotty first died I thought I couldn’t feel any worse.  And when the visitors to the house thinned out I thought I couldn’t feel any worse.  And at the four-week mark when one of his bottles of beer fell out of the fridge, and I sat in the mess not giving a toss about broken glass, I thought it couldn’t get any worse.  And bundling up his toothbrush and shaving gear and throwing them in the rubbish bin and then an hour later scrabbling to retrieve them and put them back where they belonged, I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse than that.  And the morning at Dight Falls when I first met you, I’d passed the entire night sitting on the couch, staring at nothing, thinking nothing, being nothing other than a woman who had lost her husband,  I was convinced that things were as bad as they’d ever been.  But by then I’d learned that just because I can’t imagine anything worse doesn’t mean the worst isn’t still to come.  (p. 315)

There is so much to think and talk about in The Memory Trap, I feel personally enriched by reading it.  That’s the test of a great book, isn’t it?

The only disappointment in this book is its inane cover design.  I read somewhere this week that an award for Australian book design has been dropped – and although it’s a shame, I think I can guess the reason for the decision.  Book design has, for the big publishing houses, become a shabby afterthought: choose 2-3 keywords to search for a pic from Shutterstock or Getty, fling a font on top, paste a marketing blurb on it, and that’s it.  The smaller publishing houses like Text Publishing and Transit Lounge still do captivating designs,  but of course they’re too small to sponsor a prize. It’s a pity.

What do you think about monuments and memorials?  As you’d expect, I love the traditional sort of monuments to authors that I’ve seen in the UK and Ireland, France, Italy, Spain and Russia and I wish we had more of these in Australia.  The only comparable one I can think of is Alan Marshall’s outside the Bayside Library at Sandringham – though Monuments Australia suggests that there are more than you might think, depending on how you interpret memorials.  (No sign of one to Patrick White, alas).  There are countless war memorials in cities and towns all over Australia, though none that I know of to Aboriginal resistance fighters from the frontier wars – still too contentious I suppose, just as it’s still too difficult for some places in Europe to memorialise the Holocaust.  When it comes to large scale war memorials, I found the Victory Monument in St Petersburg very moving because it acknowledges the suffering of civilians, but Nina is wary of whoppers because they can mute and crush those who stand in their shadows; huge monuments can actually make individuals disappear.   Goldsmith doesn’t tell us what Nina thinks of the War Memorial in Canberra…

Other reviews are at The Australian and The SMH.

Author: Andrea Goldsmith
Title: The Memory Trap
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2013
ISBN: 9780732296728
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Book Store, Bentleigh.


Fishpond: The Memory Trap


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    For those who may be unaware, Lisa Hill (the reviewer) is my wife and Andrea Goldsmith (the author) is an old uni friend of mine. What a small world!


  2. Sounds like a ripper Lisa.
    And how lovely to hear from your Spouse. It is a small world indeed.
    I love visiting graveyards to imagine the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people laid to rest there. Perhaps the monuments and memorials of the unknown appeal to me more than those erected to honour the famous. Indeed, though, what an interesting career for the central character.
    This is definitely one for the reading list.


    • Oh yes, I love pottering through old graveyards. I am especially fond of the pioneer cemetery at Cheltenham, where there are so many headstones recording brave hopes, courage and adversity. But there is also something special about paying homage to artists, writers and musicians who have enriched my life. On my first trip to Europe when I was still tottering along with a walking stick three weeks after my first ankle op, we made a pilgrimage to Beethoven’s memorial in the Vienna cemetery, and it remains a very special memory because I have been besotted about Beethoven since I was a teenager.

      Sometimes I think that future generations will regret the prevailing scatter-the-ashes phenomenon…


  3. Sounds good … I like monuments and memorials too – the known and the unknown – though in Europe in particular I get very tired of men on horses! There’s a lovely memorial to a local citizen who cared for beaches and the local environment on one of the beaches in Port Macquarie. I like it – and, I probably wouldn’t have heard of “Harry” or if I had remembered him if it weren’t for that memorial.

    There are a few monuments to authors around Australia. I’m sure there’s a Henry Lawson one, but the only one I can visualise right now is the Henry Kendall one I used in my blog when I was very new. But, it does, as you say, depend on how you define it. That’s a statue … does it have to say it’s a “memorial” to raise it from being simply a statue? And does it have to be somehow “big” to be a monument?


    • Well, I think Goldsmith’s Nina would say no. What makes it messy is that sometimes memorials end up being reinterpreted as time goes by, there’s an example of one which originally was a memorial to colonial conquests which becomes an anti-colonialism one. And what about plaques, like the blue ones in London – do they count?


      • Yes, good question. I’m inclined to interpret broadly. If they commemorate the existence of someone, they count. But, their meaning does change over time. How can they not?


        • And sometimes the most imposing of monuments give the wrong message!


  4. Sounds like a great read, Lisa. I’m glad you mentioned our typically myopic and immature lack of memorial to Aboriginal resistance fighters. At this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival I attended a session in which Henry Reynolds discussed this very thing, also covered in his book ‘The Forgotten War’. We should memorialise our ANZACs and other service men and women, but the lack of a tribute to those brave Aborigines fighting for their land with the same level of bravery really sticks in my craw. Would that we as a nation were a little more mature … and honest.


    • It sticks in my craw too, and I’d love to see some real political leadership on this one.


  5. Thnaks Lisa: I’d never heard of this author. I went looking at some of the back list. Two titles: Gracious Living and Interiors sound like titles for those home design magazine. I’m going to have to read one of these.


    • LOL Guy … I’ve read two of hers, the first being Modern interiors. I enjoyed it though that was a long time ago. I didn’t enjoy her one before this so much, The reunion. But, I’m very prepared to try this one.


    • I found Gracious Living and Modern Interiors in a second-hand shop a little while ago. I’m actually quite curious to see what her style was like in her early years as a writer…


  6. There is a wonderful statue of Alan Marshall outside the Eltham library. And aren’t many writing prizes memorials to the writers who endowed them, or in whose memory they are named? Great review, thanks. Like Whispering Gums I didn’t enjoy The Reunion but thanks to you I’m now prepared to give this one a go!


    • I’ll have to check that one out next time I’m over that way, you know, I remember a time when every kid had read I Can Jump Puddles, a wonderfully inspiring story, eh?
      I suppose the Miles Franklin is the ultimate memorial, but I’d really like to see a proper statue of her somewhere….


  7. On the basis of the cover I would never have considered reading this book. As you say it doesn’t seem as if much thought went into selecting an image that reflected the content at all.

    The memorials that have the most impact on me are the ones you find in small villages marking the deaths of their sons in WW1 and 2. Often the surnames show a family connection and you get the sense of the gap these events would have left in the life of the village.


    • I like the old pioneers’ ones, and also the ones we have here along the Shipwreck Coast – the name speaks for itself, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Playlab 2014, see a review in The Australian Andrea Goldsmith, The Memory Trap, Fourth Estate 2014, see my review and a Sensational Snippet Gideon Haigh, On Warne, Penguin Books 2012, see a review at The Monthly […]


  9. […] winner of the Best Writing Prize is Andrea Goldsmith, for her novel The Memory Trap (see my review and a Sensational Snippet); […]


  10. […] Goldsmith is one of my favourite authors.  I loved Reunion, and I loved The Memory Trap even more.  This year she has a new book called Invented Lives (Scribe, April) so I wanted to read […]


  11. […] happens whether we intend it to or not.  As we know from Andrea Goldsmith’s wonderful book The Memory Trap  societies do choose, by some kind of consensus, to memorialise some events and to ignore others.  […]


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