War, conscience, adoption, acceptance and the pivotal role of memory are the resonant themes of a thought-provoking and quietly subtle debut children’s novel from an author who spent her formative years in Preston.
Ruth Eastham, who now lives in Italy, has used her experiences in Romania and the Balkans to create this moving and cleverly worked story of a boy rescued from a Bosnian orphanage and his ageing, troubled grandfather.
Haunting, powerful and emotionally charged, The Memory Cage overflows with generosity, humanity and understanding while building a warm and wise bridge between the generations.
They might not be aware of it but 13-year-old Alex Smith and his Grandad have a lot more in common than just a fiercely protective love for each other.
Both are outsiders in their own family; Grandad’s increasing forgetfulness and truculence has alienated him from Alex’s mum, dad and siblings and teenager Leonard has never come to terms with the adopted brother he cruelly labels ‘Bosnia Boy’ and ‘Charity Case’.
While Grandad keeps old secrets buried in an out-of-bounds attic room and a brain that is slowly deteriorating because of Alzheimer’s, Alex stores the first seven terrifying war-torn years of his life in an unopened memory bank and a box gathering dust under his bed.
As long as the past is kept under lock and key, it won’t hurt and as long as Alex can convince the family that Grandad doesn’t need to go into a home, all will be well. After all, ‘ignorance is bliss’ says Grandad.
But Grandad’s erratic behaviour can’t be covered up forever and when Alex learns that the old man is to go into a care home in just one week’s time, he is determined to prove that he’s not a lost cause.
With the help of a scrapbook to jog memories, Alex slowly pieces together some of the mysteries from Grandad’s younger days, particularly during the volatile years of the Second World War.
What Alex finds there reawakens his own nightmares and like an enemy waiting in the shadows, the truth is about to ambush him.
Together they will learn that you can’t keep the past caged up because in the end it will only suffocate you.
Eastham’s depiction of the touching relationship between Alex and his Grandad provides the ideal canvas on which to paint her wider, more universal themes.
Beautifully written and carefully conceived, The Memory Cage is an exceptional first novel and has so much to offer for children aged 10 and over.
(Scholastic, paperback, £5.99)