Playing True Stories: Karin Tidbeck’s Dazzling The Memory Theater

The Memory Theater looks like a small book, but it contains a multiverse. Nothing I had read about Karin Tidbeck’s new novel quite prepared me for it. Summaries don’t capture the weight of worlds, the yearning for home, the driving force of stories within this story. It’s a fairy tale without fairies, a book that uses the irrefutable logic of the fairytale form: This is how it happened. Magic simply is. Tidbeck’s tale is a quest and a trap, a two-pronged narrative in which two children find their way out of a timeless world—while one’s former keeper desperately seeks a way back in. It made me feel as if I’d been let in on a secret by someone who understands more mysteries of the world than I do, and it left me grateful for the experience of reading.

In the Gardens, time does not pass. This tiny world’s inhabitants created it for themselves, a land of eternal youth, eternal twilight, eternal croquet parties that are often deadly for the children who serve the world’s lords and ladies. Thistle is one of those servants, his namesake plant carved into his skin by his mistress’s sharp nails. Dora is an abandoned child with a strange origin story that Thistle retells for her. No one can touch her, but she won’t leave Thistle to the mercy of the Gardens.

But then: a variable. Augusta Prima, Thistle’s keeper, finds a watch on a corpse in the woods, and her obsession with the idea of time itself gets her booted from the self-protecting Gardens. When the remaining lords and ladies come for Thistle, an interfering traveler whisks Dora and Thistle out of the Gardens and into a search for his name. Augusta is the only person who knows it, but she is cutting her own swath across our world, demanding a way back into the Gardens.

The Memory Theater is rich, multiversal, all-encompassing; The Memory Theater is an intimate story about the arc of life, described through strange worlds and lives lived outside our world’s boundaries. Here, childhood is a time of living under the cruel whims of adults who do as they will; next comes a liminal space, a neither-here-nor-there that takes Dora and Thistle across worlds and ways of existing in them. Going home again doesn’t work out as Thistle hopes, and eventually, he has to make a choice about how he will live—and which world to live in.

Augusta Prima’s story runs alongside, demonstrating how curiosity and fear of time are incompatible concepts. Even in her stunning, thoughtless cruelty, there’s something tragic in Augusta, something deeply broken that leads her to destroy her world, be remade, and then do it all over again. The timelessness of the Gardens leaves her literally incapable of learning from the past. Thistle, on the other hand, begins to move forward—and Dora is her own creature entirely, a child of magic and earth who returns to the ground when she needs to heal.

And then there’s the titular theater, a brilliant invention about which I would like to read a whole other book. The Memory Theater tells the stories the world needs to remember. Its four players mostly have titles for names—Director, Journeyman, Apprentice, and, for some reason, Nestor. When they perform, they become their roles, regardless of age or gender or even species. They are transformed in the act of telling, performing scripts that simply appear in their playbook. It’s a dream of creative life: work that is necessary, transformative, true, and needed. Each role is vitally important, especially the still-learning Apprentice, who provides hope.

The Memory Theater is full of ideas like this—ideas about stories and support and love and the ways people are and can be with each other. Tidbeck is never prescriptive, but writes with grace and economy, dipping into more lush phrases when she needs them. Some worlds are spare, and some more lush, and some barely seen, like the alluring library where some librarians “served as living books, reciting stories that could only be told in gesture or dance. … The library was an ecosystem of sorts; the sheer mass of the place couldn’t help but create life.” (I would also like an entire book about Pinax, the enchanting character with a particular connection to this library.)

Describing what the Memory Theater does, Director says, “We play true stories. We write them into the book of the universe, if you will, or weave them into the tapestry, if that sounds better. When we do that, the event will live on. It is recorded and will always have happened.” True stories aren’t just told, but played, or performed with a librarian’s body. This physicality of story, the power of being and telling, recalls Tidbeck’s Amatka, in which people repeatedly name objects which will otherwise lose their forms. In Amatka, the naming is a means of control. Here, naming and telling are powerful in different ways, but they still shape worlds. To live without true stories is to shut oneself in the Gardens, trading narrative and meaning for a timelessness in which nothing has ever happened.

Immersive, dreamy, and expansive, The Memory Theater is a nesting doll of interconnected worlds and lives, a kaleidoscopic reflection of our reality, made magical and strange. It’s about names, and freedom, and repeating the past; it’s about finding your place in the world, telling necessary stories, and the power of crossroads. Maybe it’s just a story. But it’s the kind of story that feels true.

The Memory Theater is available from Pantheon.
Read an excerpt here.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.

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