Combined Reviews: The Memory Room by Christopher Koch

memory_room.jpg Reviews of The Memory Room by Christopher Koch
Random House
November 2007

[This novel has been longlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award.]

From the publisher's page

'What is a spy? Are they born, or are they made?'

With these words, Vincent Austin analyses his future occupation. Some spies are made, he says, but his kind is born. He is devoted to secrecy for its own sake. Vincent is orphaned early, and his boyhood in Tasmania is spent with an elderly aunt. His fascination with secrecy and espionage -- and much else besides -- is shared to an uncanny degree by Erika Lange, daughter of a post-World War German immigrant. She too has lost her mother, and she and Vincent see themselves as twin spirits, inhabiting a shared, platonic world of fantasy and ritual.

At University, Vincent aims to enter Foreign Affairs - an ambition shared by his easygoing friend Derek Bradley. However, in his final year, Vincent is recruited by ASIS -- Australia's overseas secret intelligence service -- and his adolescent dream becomes reality. Erika becomes a journalist, eventually entering the overseas service as a press officer. She is an attractive and magnetic woman, but her emotional life is chaotic.

She, Vincent and Bradley meet again in 1982, when they are in their thirties, and have all been posted to the Australian Embassy in Beijing. Here, Erika and Bradley begin an affair which is ultimately doomed to fail. At the same time, Vincent attempts an espionage coup which ends in disaster for himself and Bradley.

Both men are expelled from China, and are based in Canberra, where Vincent is confined to the ASIS Registry: the 'memory room' of the book's title. This is the year of Star Wars, and the final phase of the Cold War.

Erika, also returning to Australia, becomes a television journalist, and enjoys a period of national prominence. The fantasies of youth have become reality for Erika and Vincent, and lead to a tragic climax for them both. It is left to Bradley, who inherits Vincent's diaries, to contemplate their fate.

Although THE MEMORY ROOM deals with espionage, its aims go far beyond those of a thriller. A psychological study of a brilliant but eccentric secret intelligence operative, it is also an exploration of the mystical nature of secrecy itself, and of the consequences of a shared obsession.


Nikki Barrowclough in "The Sydney Morning Herald": "The mystique of secrecy has always fascinated Christopher Koch. It has glimmered in books he has written in the past, such as Highways to a War, and it lies at the heart of his mesmerising new novel, The Memory Room, set in the last days of the Cold War...Most writers are spies, in the sense they are always listening and watching, composing characters in their heads and working out their motives. And by living in their imaginations, writers, too, lead a sort of secret life. Koch's examination of what motivates the brilliant if eccentric Vincent Austin, an orphan who grows up in Tasmania with an elderly aunt and is recruited by ASIS, Australia's overseas secret intelligence service, is written partly as a memoir."

Michael Williams in "The Age": "Fans of Koch's earlier work won't be disappointed, but somehow The Memory Room never quite amounts to anything much. It just doesn't find the author hitting the high notes that he's previously shown himself capable of, contenting itself with a meditation on a group of characters
who never fully come alive...Too often we're told about the characters' individual qualities without ever being shown them...As a book about the banality of espionage, a glimpse of the somewhat futile bureaucracy of Australian foreign affairs and the loneliness of the spy's life, this is a solid and rewarding read."

Leonie Kramer in "The Australian": "Christopher Koch's latest novel, The Memory
, is a tour de force. It continues his exploration of the purpose he wrote about in an essay, The Novel as Narrative Poem: 'to reach into the hearts and secret lives of ordinary men and women'. The continuity of his search, and the quality of his writing in this novel, represents the deepest exploration of these secret lives in a fast-paced narrative set in the real world of spies, intrigues and secrets...This is no ordinary spy story, though at times it is tempting to turn over a few pages to see how a problem is solved or the tension relaxed. The inventive structure of the novel introduces changes in narrative voices, movements of the characters and unexpected shifts in chronology. These features, however, are an essential part of the meaning, as are some very precise dates. The difficulty for the reviewer is to avoid playing a guessing game with the narrative because this is a book that invites individual interpretations and doesn't have a whodunit ending...Koch's detail is never merely ornamental but essential to the meaning of the narrative and the unveiling of the characters."

Adrian Mitchell in "Australian Book Review": "Consider the plight of the established novelist. The readership (that's us) comes to recognise a particular style, a particular set of themes, and presumably that is one of the reasons to go on buying the writer's books. Should the next book always be in the same mould -- in which case we might become a tad bored -- or should there be something quite out of character, causing us to gasp with disbelief? After all, it is usually disastrous when a diva starts singing popular songs. Christopher Koch's new book sets up these kinds of tension. Something new about what is remembered?...The pattern of Koch's thinking has been shaped by the writers he reveres, Dostoevsky, Kipling, Greene and Fitzgerald among them. He has always been
ambitious to advance deep issues. They are certainly to be found across the pages of this novel; yet, because such action as there is happens at a remove, the impact of the leading ideas has to be assumed."


Jason Steger profile of Christopher Koch in "The Age".
Interview with the author from "The Metro", a UK newspaper.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 2, 2008 1:51 PM.

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