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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

WEIDENFELD £16.99 (336pp) £15.99
The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore
The tips of their tongues
By Julie Wheelwright
27 August 2004

Noel Burun and his mother Stella are mirror images. Noel suffers from hypermnesic synaesthesia (he sees words in colours). He cannot forget, while his mother, suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease, cannot remember. Both are heavy burdens, and Noel gives up his job in a chemistry lab to find a cure for his mother's deteriorating condition. This might appear thin ground for humour, but the Canadian novelist Jeffrey Moore's finely honed wit had me barking with laughter.

The novel is replete with parallels. Noel's only friend Norval bears an uncanny physical resemblance to him but is his opposite in every other way. An embodiment of the dark side of Noel's caring but dysfunctional personality, his friend is a brilliant, bitter writer who never holds his tongue. He is also a Casanova, sleeping his way through an alphabet of women as a performance piece entitled Alpha Bet. At "S", he meets sloe-eyed Samira, who manages to disturb Norval's conscience long enough to bring his train of desire to a screeching halt.

Noel falls in love with Samira, too. All patients of Dr Emile Vorta, the dodgy neuropsychologist who narrates this story, they form a family. It also includes Jean-Jacques (JJ), a Québecois net-head who has a penchant for deadly puns and for making money through less than legal means. After unpleasant dealings with the Hells Angels, JJ moves into the Burun home, where he helps Noel with his experiments. Samira and Norval follow, offering support.

Given that both Moore's parents suffered from memory loss, Stella's pain as she realises she is losing her ability to think and remember has some heartbreakingly authentic details. Stella becomes dangerous, escaping from Noel's vigil to wander their Montreal neighbourhood. The novel culminates in Norval's appearance on a game show to clear his family's debts. Norval is fed answers by Noel through a system devised by JJ. But, as Stella's condition miraculously begins to improve, the show provides the catalyst for Noel to forget.

Although Moore tantalisingly leaves many questions unanswered, all the hallmarks of his fiction are here. They include an ability to create engaging characters, and a fine balance of warmth, insight and eviscerating humour.