Bite-sized books: Madeleine

Madeleine is in therapy, haunted by memories that take over her waking world like hallucinations. She blames the experimental drug trial she signed up to. Her therapist suspects it’s just another psychological tic brought on by grief.

Amal El-Mohtar’s Madeleine is another Nebula-nominee concerned with mourning the awful impact of Alzheimer’s. Reading it hard on the heels of Today, I Am Paul (and once again on public transport), I was braced for a difficult read – but this is a very different emotional journey (although you might want to keep a hanky handy just in case).

Madeleine is big themes tightly-packed into an elegant vehicle: the losses and compromises of growing up; the isolation of living in a foreign land; the painful twinge of nostalgia. Even before we learn that Madeleine has recently lost her mother (and become distanced from her friends through the long months of degeneration), it’s clear she carries a burden of little griefs.

Turning to prescription drugs to help her cope, these familiar companions are thrown into sharp relief as unexpected memories creep up on her, tearing her away from her current situation and leaving her in another time and place. She’s terrified – it happens when she’s driving and crossing the road – but there is a tiny hint of comfort in these snatched moments of better times.

She’s reluctant to open up to her therapist, and I found myself wondering whether her friends had abandoned her or been pushed away. Grief – like depression, or chronic illness – demands a lot; you need good friends. It’s unclear whether Madeleine had them, or whether the inner demons that attend on those conditions simply convinced her she didn’t.

When she sees a new face in a childhood memory – out of time, out of place – and then again in subsequent flashback, neither Madeleine nor Clarice the therapist are sure what’s going on (although Clarice has ideas). And once Madeleine makes contact, it becomes impossible to tell whether she has created the friend she so desperately needs. Is Zeinab real? If so, who is she? And how has she got inside Madeleine’s memories?

It’s emotional reading, and I found it cut straight to my heart. Madeleine swept me up and engaged me from the start. It left me on a hopeful note, believing in humanity and desperate to read more of Amal El-Mohtar’s work. Good stuff.



Madeleine can be read online at Lightspeed.

Art ©2015 by Orion Zangara

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