Trezza Azzopardi’s sophomore novel Remember Me may well be the most depressing book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which at least ended on a hopeful note. No such luck here. Remember Me is the story of a thieving British bag lady, whose ill-fated life is traced from her lowly birth around the outset of WWII to the final shocking revelation of how she came to be the mostly forgotten wretch and outcast she is when we first meet her in her seventies.
Our heroine is known by a variety of names throughout the course of the book depending on who you ask and where we are in the arc of her life. Known to her parents as Lilian, she loses her mentally unstable mother to an unspecified illness when she is still a very young child. Her alcoholic father, unable to cope with the little girl after the death of his wife, soon shuffles her off to her stern and emotionally distant widower grandfather’s place—where her name is changed to Patricia and her “tell-tale” flaming red hair is died dark. This is more or less the last we see of dear old Dad, and Granddad barely tolerates her presence. However, she does befriend her grandfather’s foreign boarder, Mr. Stadnik (whom it is hinted might be a displaced European Jew), a kind older man who becomes something of an emotional anchor for Lilian in her early years.
Eventually her grandfather sends her, along with Stadnik, away to his widowed sister’s failing farm. Things go alright for awhile . . . until Patricia’s aunt and Stadnik begin a romantic relationship that earns the displeasure of the local cleric, and Stadnik too abandons her, though (mercifully) not by his own choice. Young Patricia nevertheless grows into early adolescence under her aunt’s laissez-faire watch and momentarily finds love with a local boy, Joseph, who knocks her up and then splits. Yet again abandoned, in order to avoid the coming scandal Patricia leaves her aunt, her last remaining family member, for good. Pregnant, friendless and now without family, troubled, naive and uneducated, with less and less to keep her tied to reality, the poor girl is taken in by a charlatan spiritualist and his caustic and jealous female assistant, who promptly change her name to Winnie and exploit her growing mental instability, making her their star attraction. They also force her to submit to a back alley abortion and introduce her to an abhorrent client of theirs, a sleazy shoemaker with a taste for adolescent girls, and it only gets worse from here.
As Lilian/Patricia/Winnie/?’s circumstances continue to grow steadily more awful, the reader is left devastated, hoping—nay, praying—for some kind of redemption for the protagonist after a life chock full of misfortune and heartache. That’s usually how these things go, right? Alas, gentle reader, this is not that kind of book. The closest we get to a happy ending for our girl is a final peek into her thought process at the end, a means of understanding why she has become the person she has.
I’ll level with you: this was a hard book to read. I’m a fan of horror stories of all kinds, but this to me is the most horrific sort I’ve ever encountered because it is not merely plausible, it is the kind of thing that happens all too often, frequently right under our noses. As you might expect, there’s a lesson here about the plight of the homeless, and it is deftly handled if so relentlessly depressing at times that more than once I felt compelled to stop reading. Ultimately my sense of moral obligation won out, and I am at least glad I read to the end, even if I didn’t get the relief I would’ve liked. No, this is not the sort of book you read for pleasure; you should know that going into it. But it is the kind of book that gives you perspective on a minority that exists in our everyday world but which we rarely take notice of, and that’s the point of both the book’s title and its main character’s constantly shifting name and identity. Here is a person who has floated through her entire life almost transparently (not by choice, at least not at first) like the ghosts she believes she communicates with, and like those ghosts, she clamors not to be forgotten, to not have lived her entire sad and crummy life in vain. Let’s hope she doesn’t.