Mourning, Melancholia and Melodrama in Contemporary Women's Grief Fiction: Kim Edwards's the Memory Keeper's Daughter.
Article Type: Critical essay
Subject: American fiction (Works)
American fiction (Criticism and interpretation)
Grief (Portrayals)
Motherhood (Portrayals)
Loss (Psychology) (Portrayals)
Women in literature (Portrayals)
Female identity (Portrayals)
American writers
Women writers
Author: Andermahr, Sonya
Pub Date: 05/01/2011
Publication: Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198
Issue: Date: May, 2011 Source Volume: 37 Source Issue: 1
Persons: Named Person: Edwards, Kim; Edwards, Kim
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 268220711
Full Text: Introduction

This essay examines the genre of women's grief fiction through the lens of psychoanalytic theories of mourning and melancholia. It concentrates on the family melodrama as an instance of popular, 'middlebrow' women's fiction, which addresses and sometimes exploits women's vulnerability as mothers and their anxieties around mothering. I will focus on the American writer Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter, (1) which explores the consequences to a family of concealing from the mother the live birth of a baby with Down's syndrome. This was her first novel, published in 2005 when she was 47. Written in an emotive and powerful fashion from the perspective of various family members, the novel explores the imbrication of the psychic and the social in its depiction of personal betrayal, family breakdown, and conventional attitudes to grieving and the disabled. Following analysis of critical reviews of the novel and a consideration of the reasons for its commercial success, I provide a psychoanalytic reading of the novel's representation of grief and loss, arguing that while it engages the classic Freudian model of mourning as consolatory substitution, (2) it also adopts the more ambivalent model of 'endless mourning' proposed in Freud's later work (3) and subsequently developed by feminist theorists. Making use of Julia Kristeva's concept of narcissistic melancholy, (4) I read The Memory Keeper's Daughter as an attempt to represent 'the real that does not lend itself to signification' (13), showing how it represents grief as a turning away from the realm of signs, a disintegration of bonds, and a retreat into asymbolia. Finally, I utilize Kristeva's concept of poetic language as a 'counter-depressant', which ameliorates the pain of loss without repudiating it, to suggest that this and other examples of women's grief fiction attempt to 'transform the woeful darkness into lyrical song' (162).

Women's grief fiction as domestic melodrama

A significant theme in contemporary women's writing is the loss of a child and the effects of this on the mother and her family. This preoccupation with the representation of bereavement obtains across generic boundaries within women's writing as a whole. Recent examples of what I call 'women's grief fiction' have taken the form of the crime thriller, for example, Louise Doughty's Whatever You Love; the gothic novel, such as Julie Myerson's The Story of You; (5) and the domestic melodrama as in Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Collectively, these texts explore the emotional impact of loss and grief on psychic well-being and relationships, often depicting the consequences of family breakdown. In terms of market, the genre is positioned somewhere between mass market and literary fiction. It belongs to a cross-over category of 'middlebrow' fiction, dubbed somewhat derogatorily 'mum's lit', which combines features of popular and literary writing to appeal to a wide audience of readers. Usually strongly plot-driven, women's grief fiction also aspires to represent psychological themes in a complex and sometimes poetic manner. Unlike mass market fiction, the genre is regularly reviewed by what is called in Britain 'the quality press', and the book blurbs often draw attention to the emotional power of such novels, if not always the presence of fine writing in them.

The domestic melodrama features strongly within women's middlebrow fiction. The term 'melodrama' comes from the Greek for 'song drama'. The OED defines it as 'a dramatic piece characterized by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions but with a happy ending'. (6) The Memory Keeper's Daughter, is an example of a highly successful family melodrama. As a hardback first published by Viking, the novel initially sold about 30,000 copies. It was then issued in paperback by Penguin in May 2006 and, through a combination of aggressive marketing, word of mouth customer recommendations and inclusion on book club reading lists, began to climb the bestseller lists. In July 2006 the novel entered the New York Times Top 10 bestseller list; by 2007, it had reached the Top 50 BookScan bestseller list with sales in excess of 800,000. Selection as a 'Need to Read' book in the US and a 'Richard & Judy Summer Read' in the UK added to the cumulative sales effect. Following the Richard & Judy recommendation, for example, UK sales of the novel reached a weekly average of 40,000, quite a contrast to the initial hardback print run of 30,000. To date, international sales have topped an extraordinary 4 million.

While the novel's sales figures suggest that it is a good example of cross-over, middlebrow fiction, Edwards sees herself primarily as a literary writer. In an interview she talks about how she spent years honing her craft and how she always intended to become a writer. She describes the genesis of the novel in a story told to her many years before about a family secret in which a child was given away at birth: 'I thought it would be very interesting to explore a secret and

how that dark gravity would shape how a family evolved.' (7) The novel begins in the winter of 1964 with the birth of twins in extraordinary circumstances. With no time to get to the hospital, the father, Dr David Henry, delivers the babies himself in his own practice with a nurse in attendance. The first baby, a son Paul, is born healthy but the second one, a girl, Phoebe, has Down's syndrome. Meanwhile, the mother, Norah, is sedated and not fully aware of what is going on. The father makes a split second decision, and tells her that the baby is dead. He gives her to the nurse, Caroline, telling her to take the baby to a care home. Although shocked by David's decision, Caroline takes Phoebe and drives her to the home. However, the staff seem indifferent and uncaring and Caroline can't bear to leave Phoebe there. She, too, makes a momentous decision and takes the baby home with her. The rest of the novel explores the ramifications of these decisions over the next 25 years of the characters' lives. What happens, it asks, to David, the father, Norah, the mother, Caroline, the adoptive mother, and the children Paul and Phoebe in the face of such a betrayal?

As this summary suggests, the novel is a strongly plot-driven family drama, relying on the strength of its opening premise to pull in the reader. It utilizes an episodic structure that covers significant periods in the characters' lives: from the mid sixties, through the 1970s and 80s, and ending in 1989. Within each time frame, the story is narrated from the perspective of the main protagonists: David, Caroline, Norah, and, as a teenager and young adult, the son Paul. Significantly, the daughter Phoebe is not given a point of view despite being represented sympathetically through the eyes of the other characters; as a result, her subjectivity is never explored, a point to which I'll return at the end.

In the course of the novel we learn that David's sister also suffered from a disability and her early death devastated his family; it is partly out of a desire to spare Norah from a similar suffering that he lies to her. Such mitigation is meant to humanise David; Edwards does not want him to be seen as a melodramatic villain but as a flawed human being whose motives we understand even if we cannot condone them. Of course, David's lie means that Phoebe's whole existence is erased. On Norah's insistence, they go through a funeral service for her, but David refuses ever to speak of her. By making it David's decision, the novel exculpates the figure of the mother from blame for giving up a disabled child. It also allows readers to work through the issues facing mothers and fathers in such situations but, be read as foregrounding in the issue in such heightened terms, it can also increasing anxiety around maternal responsibility.

Wracked with guilt, David eventually moves out of the family home. He is finally persuaded that he has to tell Norah about Phoebe and returns to his old house to speak to her. Inevitably, in a ratcheting-up of the plot, Norah is away. Thereafter, David dies suddenly of a heart attack without having told Norah or met Phoebe. It is only now that his secret finally comes out and the other characters are left trying to pick up their lives and come to terms with the return of the lost child, now a grown woman with a life of her own. The ending is strangely anti-climactic given that it sees the family reunited after David's death. It is as though, when his secret comes to light, the narrative momentum runs out. Notwithstanding its focus on motherhood and children, the novel foregrounds David's story: he is the 'memory keeper' of the title, so called because of his fascination with photography, which begins with a camera Norah buys him called 'The Memory Keeper'. (8)

Critical reviews and reader responses

What then accounts for the novel's success? Ron Charles in The Washington Post claims that 'anyone would be struck by the extraordinary power and sympathy of The Memory Keeper's Daughter'. (9) Bookmarks Magazine notes that it 'packs a hefty emotional punch that will keep readers turning the pages', (10) and the Amazon website repeatedly uses terms such as 'compulsively readable" and 'deeply moving'. (11) As Joanna Briscoe points out, it is 'a skilfully packaged debate-provoker ... perfectly attuned to the era of the book club'. (12) In July 2007 the novel was discussed by the Times book group led by Alyson Rudd who explored the reasons for its success with book club readers. She concluded that it recounts a simple story in a direct and powerful manner, giving readers the opportunity to ponder the question 'what if?': 'What if I had a baby with Down's syndrome? What if I had a test and could abort? If I kept the baby, how would it affect other members of my family?' (13) The novel therefore provokes the kinds of questions upon which book clubs thrive. As one American reader put it: it is 'an incredible discussion book [which] raised a lot of issues about how you would have reacted in the same situation'. (14)

The reviewers single out particular aspects of the novel for praise: Joanna Briscoe in The Guardian commends Edwards's depiction of the erosion of the couple's marriage in the face of grief but finds the story of Caroline's struggle to raise Phoebe to be the novel's strongest element. Similarly, Ron Charles in The Washington Post, applauds Edwards's handling of the adoption narrative:

As many commentators have observed, the novel explores attitudes to Down's syndrome in an interesting and sensitive way: David's attitude would not have been unusual in the 1960s when the condition was not well understood even by the medical profession. Down's syndrome sufferers were routinely seen as mentally and physiologically weak, and likely to die young. As a result they were often institutionalised and, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, neglect and lack of care and encouragement did lead many to ail and die at a young age. However, Caroline's determination pays off and, as the years pass, Phoebe makes good progress. She goes to an ordinary state school, plays basketball, looks after her kitten, and learns to weave. Then, as a young adult she finds a job in a photocopy shop, and a boyfriend, which tests even Caroline's views of what is possible. As the novel ends, Phoebe is due to live a semi-independent life in sheltered accommodation, a very different outcome from the life predicted for her in the 1960s.

While the novel appeals to book clubs for foregrounding plot, character psychology and moral issues, reviewers have criticised it for its 'treacly" writing, populist leanings, and lack of finesse.

Briscoe describes it rather disparagingly as family drama crossed with the misery memoir, and compares Edwards to Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve in producing a 'tasteful brand of commercial fiction'. (16) Of the plot contrivances, she comments: 'This is an unlikely scenario burdened with too many improbables and underpinned by a structure of convenient psychological justifications.' (17) Publishers Weekly calls the novel 'assured but schematic', arguing that although 'the impact of Phoebe's loss makes sense, Edwards's redundant handling of the trope robs it of credibility'. It concludes: 'This neatly structured story is a little too moist with compassion.' (18) Similarly, Ron Charles notes: 'Some ominously saccharine moments indicate that Edwards can slip into the treacly trade.' In his view, 'Edwards has trouble maintaining the electrifying atmosphere of [the] long opening scene' and chides the author for pointing out 'too many times' the impact of David's deception on family life. (19) Alyson Rudd in The Times maintains that the novel's flaws include 'weak description', a lack of historical context, and a dependence on romantic cliches, stating: 'There is more than a touch of Mills and Boon at work.' (20) Her book club readers were also not averse to criticism: one described it as 'a page-turner but ... not literature' and another called Edwards's style 'writing by numbers'. One reader even decried the novel as distasteful but, as Rudd comments, 'if anything ... Edwards errs on the side of being too tasteful', presenting Phoebe as a delightful girl who brings joy to her adopted family. Rudd awarded the title of 'Star Letter' to a reader who described the novel as 'carried by the strength of the storyline, not the author's craft'. (21) Finally, and somewhat damningly, Joanna Briscoe criticizes its 'sterile' quality, seeing the characters as little more than 'an enactment of a good concept' and concluding: 'It's a page turner on Valium'. (22)

As these reviews suggest, the novel has been seen largely as a potboiler about secrets and betrayal or about attitudes to Down's syndrome of the 'what would you do?' variety, rather than a representation of grief per se. In contrast, I wish to focus on the novel's treatment of mourning and its ambitious if not wholly successful attempt to trace the grieving process over 25 years. In keeping the knowledge of Phoebe from his wife, Dr Henry forces them both to internalise their grief. Edwards even suggests that Norah suffers postnatal depression which, like Down's, was not well understood at the time. Although from this point in my paper, I will not be concerned primarily with aesthetic questions of the novel's literary merits, I would like to suggest that its relentless mapping of grief does have something to do with the strong effect of claustrophobia, the static nature of the characterization, and some of the ostensible flaws that readers have perceived in the writing. I will argue that it is the very inability of the characters David and Norah to relinquish their grief and 'move forward' in their lives that inhabits and arguably inhibits the narrative. It is an impasse, beyond which they (and arguably Edwards's writing) cannot move, so overwhelming is the sense of betrayal on the one hand and loss on the other. In the next section of the paper, I turn to a theoretical analysis of melancholy and depression as a means of illuminating the novel's representation of grief and loss. By bringing together popular middlebrow fiction and abstract critical theory, I hope to set up a fruitful dialogue between them, and suggest both that the former be taken seriously as a representation of grief and that the latter has a more popular and practical application than may be assumed.

Theorizing mourning and melancholia: Julia Kristeva's Black Sun

'For those who are racked by melancholia, writing about it would have meaning only if writing sprang out of that very melancholia' (3). So begins Kristeva's psychoanalytic study of melancholy and depression, Black Sun. The title is taken from a poem by the French poet Gerard de Nerval in which he refers to melancholy as a black sun, light and dark at the same time or, as Kristeva puts it, a 'light without representation' (13). Taking Nerval's image as her starting point, Kristeva attempts to theorise this unnameable object: 'I am trying to address an abyss of sorrow, a non-communicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis, lays claims upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself' (3). 'Where does this black sun come from?', she asks, suggesting a number of possible causes:

All these events and misfortunes are capable of causing depression, of plunging the sufferer into another life: 'A life that is unliveable, heavy with daily sorrows, tears held back or shed, a total despair, scorching at times, then wan and empty. In short a devitalised existence ...' (4). The melancholic mood is a combination of sorrow and hatred, a threshold state situated 'on the frontiers of life and death' (4). As a result the sufferer enters a kind of living death, numb to stimuli and 'absent from other people's meaning' (4). The body's rhythms appear slowed down or interrupted; it is as if time itself has been suspended, as reality becomes 'absorbed into sorrow' (4). Moreover, the body feels as if it has been wounded; 'it is bleeding, cadaverised' (4). Following Melanie Klein, Kristeva argues that erotic bonds are severed and the subject experiences a 'parcellary splitting' by which the self 'falls into pieces' (18). Psychoanalysts view this tendency toward fragmentation and disintegration as an expression of the death drive.

However, notwithstanding the immediate causes for depression in an actual loss, Kristeva follows Freud and Klein in seeing melancholia as a condition that has its roots in the loss of an imaginary rather than a real object. Moreover, depression can also 'awaken echoes of old traumas' (4), to which the sufferer has never been able to resign herself. Kristeva draws on the Freudian model of mourning, in which the sufferer's sadness at the loss of the object conceals hostility towards it for abandoning them in the first place. In classical psychoanalysis, depression is a form of mourning for a lost internal object, characterized by hostility and ambivalence. This ambivalent stance can lead to what Freud and Abraham identify as 'melancholy cannibalism' in which 'the intolerable other that I crave to destroy' is eaten alive; as Kristeva states: 'Better fragmented, torn, cut up, swallowed, digested ... than lost' (12). Melancholy cannibalism therefore represents a repudiation of the reality of loss and hence of death. Consequently, Kristeva argues, 'the analysis of depression involves bringing to the fore the realization that the complaint against oneself is a hatred for the other' (11). Only when the subject recognises the lost object as such, can it begin the process of consolatory substitution on which supposedly successful mourning depends.

Yet, according to Kristeva, this classical model does not account for the suffering of those who have lost their primary love while still in the chora, a pre-symbolic psychic space characterized by mother-child merger. Kristeva goes beyond Freud and Klein in identifying another form of depression, which lacks the element of hostility towards the other. In this narcissistic depression, sufferers do not feel wronged but afflicted with a fundamental flaw: 'Their sadness would be rather the most archaic expression of an unsymbolizable, unnameable narcissistic wound, so precocious that no outside agent can be used as referent' (12). In other words, this is a sense of loss that precedes objectal loss and goes back to the chora and the primary bond with the mother before the unconscious develops. It is as if the sufferer had lost the mother before she even becomes an Other. To explain this, Kristeva distinguishes between the Thing and the Object. While the object represents an actual person or relation, the Thing stands for what Kristeva calls 'the real that does not lend itself to signification' (13). Therefore, without being able to name it, the sufferer has the impression of having lost some absolute good they can never replace: 'Knowingly disinherited of the Thing, the depressed person wanders in pursuit of continuously disappointing adventures and loves; or else retreats, disconsolate and aphasic, alone with the unnamed Thing' (13). The retreat into asymbolia is therefore a form of mourning for the lost maternal object. According to Kristeva, 'the melancholy Thing interrupts desiring metonymy, just as it prevents working out the loss within the psyche' (14). Therefore, melancholia and depression are conditions in which the speaking subject turns away from the realm of signs. Melancholic discourse is repetitive and monotonous because sufferers are unable to 'concatenate', that is link signifiers together in a meaningful chain. Speech delivery becomes slowed and silences are long and frequent. In extreme cases, even that 'frugal musicality' becomes exhausted and 'the melancholy person appears to stop cognizing as well as uttering, sinking into the blankness of asymbolia or the excess of an unorderable cognitive chaos' (33). Having given up on language, the depressed are, in Kristeva's phrase, 'prisoners of affect': 'The affect is their thing' (14).

If the problem of melancholia may be summed up in the unwillingness of the subject to substitute signs for the lost Thing then, according to Kristeva, the only means of mitigating loss is through sublimation of one kind or another. One possible route is the poetic form, which 'through melody, rhythm, semantic polyvalency ... decomposes and recomposes signs, [and] is the sole container seemingly able to secure an uncertain but adequate hold over the Thing' (14). In the absence of psychoanalytic treatment, argues Kristeva, signifying practices such as poetry and music can act as a counter-depressant. In the interplay between semiotic and symbolic processes, the wounded psyche may be salved. Kristeva thus advocates literary production as an alternative treatment for depression. In the case of Nerval, who lost his mother before he knew her, suffered from depression all his life, and committed suicide at the age of 47, poetry represents an attempt to name the unnameable, to signify his loss. Kristeva reads his poem 'The disinherited' as a melancholic attempt to reach the realm of signs, to name the thing he mourns and thereby master his sadness. But his writing is not easily decodable because syntactical and narrative continuity would imply an identity already stabilised by the Oedipus complex and, therefore, an acceptance of loss. Instead it represents a fragmented, discontinuous attempt to put the unnameable into discourse, one which draws on the poetic trope of metaphor, as in his image of the black sun, which may be read as a metaphor of 'the psyche struggling against dark asymbolism' (151). The process of troping is as important as the finished work, as Noelle McAfee states: 'Metaphor, the substitution of one term for another, a carrying away that is never of the same order as the original, provides the poet with a way to sublimate potentially destructive energy ... The melancholic poet turns his sorrow into a sonnet'. (23)

Within the pages of Black Sun, Kristeva provides a rich language for speaking about, and potentially ameliorating melancholic grief, one that resonates with the accounts of loss contained in contemporary women's grief fiction, which also attempts, in Kristeva's words, to 'transform the woeful darkness into a lyrical song' (162).

The representation of grief and loss in The Memory Keeper's Daughter

In The Memory Keeper's Daughter all the protagonists, except Caroline, the adoptive mother, are in mourning but their modes of expression are particular to themselves: mother, father and son. Psychoanalysis offers a means to understand and 'work through' loss, yet none of the characters seeks counselling for depression. Within the terms of the fiction this could be explained by the setting of the story in the more conservative Southern states of America of the 1960s. However, the characters do attempt to sublimate their grief, using a variety of displacement activities as a means of coping, and some of them turn to signifying practices to symbolise their loss. As we have seen, melancholia is incommunicable grief; and, indeed, none of the characters can speak to each other about their loss over a lifetime. David, Norah and Paul's lives are dominated by the affect of sadness. They are each wrapped up in their grief and cannot share it in the social-symbolic realm. Like Kristeva's depressive persons, they are prisoners of affect, 'riveted to their pain' (34).

David's grief: mastering loss through art

David's decision to give Phoebe away is shown to affect every aspect of his relationship with Norah. Not only can he not talk to her about Phoebe, the couple effectively stop communicating about anything. Moreover, he won't risk another child in case it has Down's, despite Norah's desire for another baby. His grief leads to a radical disintegration of erotic bonds. By the time Paul is five, David and Norah have retreated into silence, only communicating when they have to, or through their son. When David discovers that Norah has begun an affair, he is unsurprised and sees it as an almost inevitable consequence of his own action years before:

The rock, it almost goes without saying, represents the metaphorical barrier to communication and desiring metonymy. David's grief over Phoebe merges with the earlier loss of his younger sister, June. Images of the two girls, specific memories in the case of June, and imaginary visions of Phoebe, living her life apart from him, haunt him throughout the text.

David's grief, strongly overlaid with guilt, takes the form of non-communication and withdrawal. He takes up photography, and spends increasing amounts of time developing pictures in his dark room, 'watching the images emerge where nothing had been' (144). Photography functions as a form of consolatory substitution as Freud describes it in 'Mourning and Melancholia'. (24) It enables David to deal with his loss, representing both a practical escape and a way of mastering loss in the fixing of an image in an instant of time: 'Photo after photo, as if he could stop time or make an image powerful enough to obscure the moment when he turned and handed his daughter to Caroline' (274). From Norah's point of view, David's photography increases the distance between them and their mutual isolation. Edwards represents it as a distinctly masculine pursuit concerned with mastering nature and therefore death:

Here, Phoebe becomes a kind of ghosted presence, a photographic negative, whose outline can only be glimpsed in the dark room; the same dark room where David keeps all Caroline's letters and photos of Phoebe locked in a safe. This is doubly symbolic; the dark room is his private space where he goes to retreat from the world and his grief. But the absence of light is also suggestive of Phoebe's fate: to be thrust into exile from the family's love and care. Moreover, the strange inverted world of the dark room, with its red light and negative images invokes Kristeva's black sun, a light without representation.

Through Norah, Edwards implies a feminist viewpoint on loss and family breakdown. Watching David discussing his photos with another man, Norah thinks: 'The photographs they were discussing were all of her: her hips, her skin, her hands, her hair. And yet she was excluded from the conversation: object, not subject. [...S]he understood that he did not really see her and hadn't for years' (181). David's photography may be seen as a kind of melancholy cannibalism, eating the other to hold onto it. After his death, Norah realises that photography represents David's 'desire to fix the world in place', and a form of resistance to 'loss and change and motion' (329). Kristeva points out that the 'work of art as fetish emerges when the activating sorrow has been repudiated. The artist consumed by melancholia is at the same time the most relentless in his struggle against the symbolic abdication that blankets him ...' (Kristeva 9). David's photography therefore functions as a symbolic attempt to master loss through art. (25)

Photography also operates as a metaphor for the novel as a whole: David's subjects mirror the novel's main themes of perception and transformation--the perception of loss and the transformation of lives in the face of it. The novel itself acts as a kind of camera held up to grief, providing a series of snapshots across the years of family life and collective mourning. According to Kristeva, it is through such symbolic acts of creation that depression may be mitigated. By transforming his grief into the language of photography, even if he cannot speak of it directly, David makes his loss bearable. And yet, it transpires that David's photography does not finally assuage his sense of loss. It is a symbolic substitution that fails ultimately to console. Repeatedly, the text inscribes his feelings of loss, returning to the same point, despite the movement through time implied by the family saga: 'Loss and grief: they rushed through him like a wave' (256). By David's death at the end of the novel, he has produced thousands of images, piled in boxes in his office and dark room. They feature girls of all ages, taken in remembrance of Phoebe. In the end, all these images cover over, but do not heal, his loss.

Norah's grief: endless mourning

Unlike David, Norah lacks a symbolic means to transform her grief. Kristeva argues, somewhat controversially, that women are more prone than men to melancholy because they are less able to substitute for their loss and therefore overcome it (71). (26) To be sure, at any moment, grief could overcome Norah:

It could be argued that the link with childhood Norah experiences expresses the loss of the archaic mother. It strongly evokes Kristeva's account of narcissistic melancholy, which derives from a loss suffered within the chora before the mother-child bond is externalized. Norah's loss is distinct from David's, not only because she believes Phoebe to be dead but because she didn't see her before she was given away and therefore has never been able to conceive of her as a separate being. Her melancholy is narcissistic because she has the sense of having lost something irreplaceable, which is, literally, a part of herself.

Moreover, Norah is akin to Kristeva's melancholics who wander 'in pursuit of continuously disappointing adventures and loves' (13). Following David's emotional withdrawal, Norah begins to drink and have affairs with other men. Thinking about them, Norah realises: 'Each had begun at moments when she thought the roar of silence in her house would drive her mad, when the mysterious universe of another presence, any presence, had seemed to her like solace' (293). But, having been a housewife for the early years of her married life, she then takes a job as a travel agent, which gives her a sense of purpose and increases her self-confidence. In fact, over the years, struggling with depression, Norah makes a success of her career, eventually buying and expanding the business. By the time Paul is a teenager, Norah is working long days and is often away on trips--to her husband's and son's dismay. The love affairs and career function as a form of consolatory substitution, but unlike David's photography, they don't transform grief symbolically, merely displace it into new activities. To a greater extent than David, Norah lives with loss, incorporating it rather than repudiating it, and experiencing a kind of 'endless mourning' for the lost and loved other.

At the end of the novel, David's funeral brings back Norah's grief over Phoebe's loss: 'it was not only for David that she grieved. They had stood together at the memorial service for their daughter all those years ago, their loss even then growing between them' (327). The penultimate section of the novel is set in 1989, a year after David's death, when Norah decides to clear out his dark room. Discovering all the photographs he has taken of girls, she knows instinctively that it's not sexual obsession the images record; in their distracted gaze she reads something else: 'Loss lingered in the play of lights and shadows; these were photos full of yearning' (364). Then she finds the photos of Paul, in all his ages and transformations, mirroring the photos of the unknown girls, and realises that 'all those years of silence, when he could not speak of their lost daughter, David had been keeping this record of her absence. Paul and a thousand other girls, all growing. Paul, but not Phoebe' (364).

Norah's grief for David understandably turns to rage when she learns the truth from Caroline. For 25 years she believed that her daughter died; now upon David's death, she has to come to terms with the fact of his betrayal--and the loss of a lifetime with Phoebe:

As this image suggests, grief renders Norah like one of Kristeva's cadaverised, bleeding melancholics. To some extent, she expiates her anger by destroying some of David's photos. By the novel's end, moreover, she is on the point of remarrying, seemingly embarking on the process of consolatory substitution, and even of forgiving David.

Interestingly, the moment of meeting Phoebe for the first time is told from Paul's, rather than Norah's point of view, giving us his view of her reaction. Inevitably, perhaps, the meeting is anti-climactic; as Norah, says, 'It would take a whole lifetime to catch up' (387), and Phoebe isn't sure she wants to in any case. Edwards doesn't spend much time on this aftermath; indeed, soon afterwards, Norah leaves for a new life in France. The novel ends with her marriage to Frederic, with both of her children standing next to her, some restitution made. As Paul realises, 'This finally was what pained his mother most, the lost years standing between them, their words so tentative and formal where ease and love should have been' (392). When Norah touches her daughter's hair, Phoebe pulls away and Paul realises, 'for this story, there were no simple endings. There would be transatlantic visits and phone calls but never the ordinary ease of daily life' (395). Despite Edwards's efforts to provide her character with a positive resolution, the sense of unresolved mourning in Norah's narrative persists.

Paul's grief: music as counter-depressant

Norah and David's son Paul also experiences the consequences of David's decision to give his sister away. Bereft of his twin, Paul always has the sense that she is more desired because lost to them. He becomes a withdrawn, watchful little boy, both overprotected by his parents and excluded from their preoccupation with their own grief. As a boy he takes up playing the guitar, showing a gift for music which Norah recognises as a major talent but David sees merely as a hobby. We are first given Paul's point of view in the 1977 section when he is 13. Like his parents, Paul is haunted by thoughts about his sister, especially when he is playing music: 'He reached for his guitar, wondering about his sister. If she hadn't died, would she be like him? Would she like to run? Would she sing?' (212). He remembers a picture of the family he'd drawn at the age of five, depicting himself holding hands with a mirror figure. He recalls the expression on his parents' faces, which he 'couldn't explain or describe but that he already knew had to do with sorrow' (212-13). Paul experiences an unnameable loss. He feels strangely responsible both for Phoebe's death and for his family's sorrow. Music becomes his consolation, a means of communicating his own grief, and an invitation to his parents to recognise and love him:

According to Kristeva, music is associated with the semiotic, the realm of the unconscious and imaginary connection with the mother. In accessing the semiotic via his guitar playing, Paul has a stronger ability than either of his parents to bridge the gap between semiotic and symbolic realms; to symbolize his sense of loss and therefore incorporate it creatively.

Discussing the differences between music and photography with his father, Paul rejects what he sees as the controlling aspects of David's art: 'Music is like you touch the pulse of the world. Music is always happening, and sometimes you get to touch it for a while, and when you do you know that everything's connected to everything else' (202). Indeed, listening to Paul perform at a concert, David himself recognises the power of music to evoke emotions and memories long suppressed:

At the end of the novel, music plays an important role when Paul and Phoebe go and visit David's grave together. She reads his name out slowly. 'Our father', Paul says. 'Our father', responds Phoebe, 'who art in heaven' (400), only recognising the phrase as the beginning of a prayer. 'You're sad', Phoebe observes, before saying, 'If my father died, I'd be sad too' (400). Paul realises that his anger against his father has dissipated, replaced now by grief. Edwards evokes the consoling power of music as Phoebe begins to sing and Paul joins in the hymn with her: 'Their singing merged, and the music was inside him, a humming in his flesh, and it was outside, too, her voice a twin to his own' (401). The final image of the novel is of the two children, now adults, reunited.

Phoebe's losses?

At the heart of this novel is a little girl with Down's syndrome. But what of her loss? Edwards depicts her with sensitivity and positive imagery throughout; she is happy, loving, a little too sweet perhaps, and--ultimately, unknown and unknowing. We are never privy to Phoebe's innermost feelings and we do not know how her father's decision to give her away has affected her psyche. When she is finally introduced to Norah and Paul after David's death, she is understandably wary and fearful that she is to be separated from the only parents she's known--Caroline and Al. She is happy with the life Caroline has made for her. By the end of the novel, aged 25, she is beginning to make a life for herself, having found a boyfriend, Robert, whom she wants to marry and set up home with. Paul's section at the end of the novel gives us the most insight into Phoebe's mind, when he accompanies her to their father's grave. She seems curious but unmoved before spontaneously breaking into song. Like Paul's music, Phoebe's song invokes the semiotic realm, tapping into an unconscious well of feeling, beyond symbolic language. While in one way an appropriate, if slightly saccharine, image to end the novel on, of the twins reunited through their love of music, it can only speak obliquely of Phoebe's losses, of her natural parents, of the life she would have had with them, and also of her full humanity, rescinded by David in his fateful decision to give her away. In one sense, Phoebe comes closest to Kristeva's delineation of the narcissistic melancholic subject, a girl who lost her birth mother before she even came to know her. But, of course, she gained a loving and capable adoptive mother and so never realised or suffered from her loss until adulthood. So, in another sense, she is perhaps the family's only non-mourning figure. Ultimately, Phoebe's psyche resists Edwards's powers of symbolization.

Conclusion: melodrama as mourning

In its repetitive focus on the characters' sense of loss, the novel insists on the absolute nature of grief; the affect of sadness predominates throughout and nothing can wholly mitigate it. And yet, various signifying practices and displacement activities are shown to operate as counter-depressants: photography for David; new loves and a successful self-validating career for Norah; and music for Paul. These are shown to be more or less effective in offering consolatory substitution: Norah's love affairs up to the point of meeting her second husband are less palliative; while Paul's music comes closest to a healing semiotic jouissance. Kristeva's emphasis on the melancholic interruption of the metonymic chain also helps to explain some of the perceived limitations of the narrative, not least its relentless, not to say redundant, depiction of grief and its consequences to the exception of other narrative elements. As a whole, the novel accords with Kristeva's account of melancholic discourse in which 'the rhythm of overall behaviour is shattered, [and] there is neither time nor place for acts and sequences to be carried out' (34). In this light, we can better understand the episodic, schematic character of text with its metaphorical focus on affect.

Readers' disappointment with the ending may also be understood in such terms: following the novel's painstaking charting of the depth of the characters' losses, the attempts at forgiveness and moving on seem too neat and pat, belying the overwhelming sense of unresolved grief. In particular, Norah's narrative of maternal loss feels unfinished and underwritten. As one Times book club reader commented, 'the novel died with David'. (27) However, this is a novel that I--and millions of others--enjoyed reading. To end, I would like to return to the concept of melodrama, taking it back to its Greek prefix, which means song or music. It can't pass without comment that this aspect of dramatic song corresponds closely to Kristeva's idea of poetic language as a counter-depressant. Could it be that women's grief fiction in the form of the family melodrama acts a counter-depressant to the reader, a means of articulating and thereby palliating the affect of sadness and melancholia that can intermittently affect us all? To suggest as much provides a way of reading such fiction not merely as cheesy mum's lit, nor either in terms of conventional literary norms, but as a meaningful symbolic representation of our unresolved mourning for lost and loved others.


This essay was presented as a Keynote address to the MIRCI-A Motherhood at the Margins Conference held at the University of Queensland, 27-30 April 2011. In preparing the essay for publication, I am indebted to the insightful and helpful feedback I received from fellow delegates.


(1) Kim Edwards, The Memory Keeper's Daughter. London: Penguin, 2007.

(2) Sigmund Freud, 'Mourning and Melancholia' [1917] Standard Edition 14. London: Vintage, 2001: 243-258.

(3) Sigmund Freud, 2001. 'The Ego and the Id' (1923) Standard Edition 19. London: Vintage: 12-66.

(4) Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. Subsequent references in text.

(5) Louise Doughty, Whatever You Love. London: Faber & Faber 2010; Julie Myerson, The Story of You. London: Vintage, 2007.

(6) Oxford English Dictionary. 1304

(7) Motoko Rich, 'A stirring family drama is a hit.' The New York Times, July 13, 2006. Accessed 28/02/2011.

(8) In this respect, the novel differs from other examples of women's melodrama which, like romance, tend to foreground female subjectivity and experience. Its focus on male as much as female characters might be seen as part of Edwards's attempt to present the novel as 'literary' rather than genre fiction.

(9) Ron Charles, Review: The Memory Keeper's Daughter. The Washington Post, 2005. Amazon Editorial Reviews. Accessed 18/03/2011.

(10) Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc., Amazon Editorial Reviews. Accessed 18/03/2011.

(11) Amazon Product Description. Accessed 18/03/2011.

(12) Joanna Briscoe, 'Life class.' Review article. The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2007. Accessed 28/02/2011.

(13) Alyson Rudd, 'The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards.' The Times August 17, 2007 Accessed 28/02/2011.

(14) Rich n.p.

(15) Charles n.p.

(16) Briscoe n.p.

(17) Briscoe n.p.

(18) Reed Business Information, Amazon Editorial Reviews. Accessed 18/03/2011.

(19) Charles n.p.

(20) Rudd n.p.

(21) Rudd n.p.

(22) Briscoe n.p.

(23) Noelle McAffee, Julia Kristeva. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

(24) Sigmund Freud, 'Mourning and Melancholia' [1917] Standard Edition 14. London: Vintage, 2001, 244-5.

(25) I accept that this is a highly tendentious way of viewing the function of photography, one that arguably overstates its instrumentalist and scopophilic aspects. An alternative theory, foregrounding the spectator, is offered by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida in which he distinguishes between the studium or symbolic meaning of the photograph and the punctum or personal meaning of the image, that which 'pierces the viewer'. Instead of solidifying reality, this aspect of the photographic image points to the ever-changing nature of the physical world (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981). I am indebted to fellow delegates at the 'Motherhood of the Margins' Conference for pointing this out.

(26) This is a problem for psychoanalysis as a whole which tends to construct femininity tout court in pathological terms. Nevertheless, Health Science professionals confirm that women present more frequently than men with symptoms of depression. See, for example, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Carla Grayson, and Judith Larson, 'Explaining the Gender Difference in Depressive Symptoms.' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 5, 1999, 1061-1072.

(27) Rudd n.p.
As a single mother at a time when special-needs
   accommodations are unheard of or considered naively radical,
   Caroline would seem to have ... a difficult path to travel.
   Edwards does nothing to minimize or romanticize that
   struggle, but Caroline makes her humble way in the world
   through sheer determination and with the help of like-minded
   activist parents who are beginning to argue that children with
   disabilities should be raised at home and attend regular
   schools. (15)

The wound I have just suffered, some setback or other in my
   love life or my profession, some sorrow or bereavement
   affecting my relationship with close relatives--such are often
   the easily spotted triggers of my despair. A betrayal, a fatal
   illness, some accident or handicap that abruptly wrestles me
   away from what seemed to me the normal category of normal
   people ... (3-4).

He was filled with the old, sure sense that the snowy night
   when he had handed their daughter to Caroline Gill would
   not pass without consequence. Life had gone on ... he was in
   all visible ways, a success. And yet at odd moments--in the
   middle of surgery, driving into town, on the very edge of
   sleep--he'd start suddenly, stricken with guilt. He had given
   their daughter away. This secret stood in the middle of their
   family; it shaped their lives together. He knew it, he saw it,
   visible to him as a rock wall grown up between them. (193)

He'd seemed obsessed over the years, always seeing the
   world--seeing her--as if from behind the lens of a camera.
   Their lost daughter still hovered between them; their lives had
   shaped themselves around her absence. Norah even
   wondered, at times, if that loss was the only thing holding
   them together. (177-8)

She wept for this knowledge and for Paul, the rage and
   lostness in his eyes. For her daughter, never known.... For the
   multitude of ways in which their love had failed them all, and
   they, love. Grief, it seemed, was a physical place. Norah wept,
   unaware of anything except a kind of release she remembered
   from childhood; she sobbed until she was aching, breathless,
   spent. (304-5)

Phoebe was alive, in the world. That knowledge was a pit
   opening, endless, in her heart. Loved, Caroline had said. Well
   cared for. But not by Norah, who had worked so hard to let
   her go. The dreams she'd had, all that searching through the
   brittle frozen grass, came back to her, pierced her. (371)

All these years he had been good, but it hadn't made any
   difference. He'd discovered music and played his heart out
   into the silence of that house, into the hole his sister's death
   had made in their lives, and that hadn't mattered either. He
   had tried as hard as he could to make his parents look up
   from their lives and hear the beauty, the joy that he'd
   discovered. (290-1)

Slowly, slowly, David let himself relax into this darkness,
   closing his eyes, letting the music, Paul's music, move through
   him in waves. Tears rose in his eyes, and his throat ached. He
   thought of his sister, standing on the porch and singing in her
   clear sweet voice; music was a silvery language it seemed
   she'd been born speaking, just as Paul had. A deep sense of
   loss rose up in him, so forceful, woven of so many memories:
   June's voice, and Paul slamming the door shut behind him,
   and Norah's clothes scattered on the beach. His newborn
   daughter, released into Caroline Gill's waiting hands. Too
   much. Too much. (195)
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