- Memory and the City in Mahy’s Memory and 24 Hours
As a writer, Margaret Mahy delighted in the way that remembering, reading, and storytelling are entwined, and her interest in the mysteries of memory is well documented. In her talk on “Endings and Beginnings” published in the collection of essays A Dissolving Ghost, she relates the particular pleasure that comes from retelling a simple story from memory: the finished narrative “seems to have re-entered the place from which it originally came” (23). A fascination with remembering and forgetting can be identified in so many of her fictions that a comprehensive study would be necessary to explore the full significance of its thematic presence, but her novel Memory (1987) offers the most obvious entry point for initial investigation. Like much of Mahy’s fiction for older children or teenagers, Memory is concerned with death or disappearance, and the subsequent complex memories those left behind have to endure or unravel.1 Not surprisingly, this novel has attracted substantial critical attention for its exploration of human memory and in particular for its treatment of the issues surrounding dementia and “false memories” resulting from trauma: for example, Roberta Trites concludes that “only once [Jonny] separates real memories from false memories can he begin to heal and outgrow the intense emotionality of his grief” (Literary 44).2 I would like to add to existing interpretations of this key text by reading it alongside a later novel, 24 Hours (2000), which has received almost no critical attention at all. In this article I examine notions of memory in both texts within a framework based on their shared urban chronotope.
Both Memory and 24 Hours feature troubling kinds of death—uncertain accident and suicide—and are therefore concerned with remembering and forgetting in the most profound terms relating to human existence. These grand narratives of life and death are ironically played out within constrained boundaries of time and space, however, since both are also predominantly urban novels that celebrate the of-the-moment dynamics of the city seen [End Page 146] through the eyes of young male protagonists. 24 Hours is a circadian or “day-in-the-life” work that has temporal boundaries of a single day, a fact it clearly states in its title: the novel is set at the weekend, between 5 pm on a Friday night and 5 pm on Saturday. It dovetails neatly with Memory, in which the action takes place over the course of a single week, from Sunday night to Friday morning. The close narrative-to-chronological duration that characterizes Mahy’s texts, as well as their settings of vibrant cityscapes, gives a sense of now-ness, which is crucial for the way that memory’s force is constructed in these fictions.
I would like to suggest that 24 Hours and Memory can be read as companion pieces, working out the same themes, symbolisms, and settings, particularly by means of the urban chronotope and its crucial role in framing meaning through memory for Mahy’s heroes. I will begin by reviewing the prevailing reading of Memory as a narrative of trauma and reconstruction, building on this interpretation by mapping out the ways that Mahy deploys a range of concepts and images related to memory drawn from classical rhetoric, metaphysics of death, and the interface between human consciousness and technology. I will then turn to an alternative form of mapping to show how the city in both Memory and 24 Hours acts as a primary metaphorical complex that works to unlock the past and promote a celebration of the perpetual present, for Mahy’s heroes and for her readers.
Metaphors of Memory
Existing critical discussions of Memory present a range of valuable approaches to the concept of memory, including symbolic as well as cognitive forms. For instance, Sarah Winters demonstrates with great subtlety the way that personal memory might be linked to broader cultural histories, especially in a novel like Memory, which opens at a protest party about Maori land rights. Winters reminds readers that ethnic identities can be covered over if we are not careful, and suggests that Mahy exposes the novel’s hero—and the...