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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists


Sun 22 Aug 2004

Crossword puzzle you won't forget

The Memory Artists
Jeffrey Moore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99

The second novel by Jeffrey Moore, a Commonwealth Prize-winning Canadian, begins with two disclaimers. In the first, both author and publisher decline responsibility for "injury or damage caused or sustained while using the remedies or rituals described in this book". In the second, Prof Emile Vorta, a neuropsychologist apparently imprisoned, states: "In the interests of science, and as a matter of historical record, I have considered it my duty to disguise nothing and suppress nothing."

The document that follows at first seems hastily stitched: an assemblage of diary entries in multiple hands; lab notes and "dramatic reconstructions". Add to this Vorta's own footnotes, with justificatory glosses, full-colour diagrams and detailed discourses on the meaning of poetry, and you have an exceptionally fine example of crossword-puzzle post-modernism: a game to savour, a half-equation to be completed with utter delight.

Yet the story is unforgettably human, concerning five of Vorta's patients, or rather, experimental participants. Noel Burun ('NB') is a hypermnesic synaesthete: he experiences sound as colour, and is incapable of forgetting. His mother, Stella, is a former teacher who, in her 50s, has advanced Alzheimer's. Their savings are running out, and they are still mourning the suicide of Noel's father. Locked in a dance of superfluity and loss, incapacity and love, their existence is increasingly precarious.

Samira was a teen Hollywood actress, but now studies art therapy incognito. Recently, she may have been the victim of a date-rape drug incident, but can't remember. JJ is locked in squalid infancy: a purveyor of bad jokes, and record-holder for the longest uninterrupted time spent surfing the internet.

Norval teaches symbolist poetry when not seducing his students. A dandy with a frozen heart, he has satirically achieved a grant to pursue his art project: sex with 26 women in alphabetical order. He is a self-constructed persona, which might mean there's no truth or memory in him. "When I get to Z I'm dead," he challenges Samira, who may be his S, unless it's Stella. They all end up co-habiting in the Burun household, where - with the help of 1,001 Nights - they work on a drug to restore Stella.

Vorta, it transpires, may be vilely, solely responsible for every single suffering the novel recounts. In a terrifying final experiment, he may even, for better or worse, 'cure' one of his patients. And Jeffrey Moore could well have left it here, with a beautifully braided, Gothic unmasking of the villain. What happens instead is exhilaratingly risky - between the ending and the endnotes he offers a fireburst that leaves the reader spellbound.