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The Rescue of Memory

The Rescue of Memory
by Cheryl Pearl Sucher Scribner, $23

In her father’s bedroom closet, Rachel, the narrator of this striking but uneven first novel, hunts through boxes of old photos and films. Hers is a family decimated by the Holocaust, her parents among the survivors. Unable to escape this past, her own life, her lovers, her wedding, all blur into mammoth grief. She makes love with her fiance in that closet, lying on a pile of old photos.

The 20-something Rachel is caught between two imperatives: the first, oft-repeated by her father, never to forget; the second, driven by her own youth, to be free enough from the past to create her own future. What this book captures well is the unbridgeable void between the old world and the new, the silence that falls between parents whose world is defined by a dangerous past and children negotiating a secure present. It is a schism that Sucher captures with precision, though it also presents problems for her book: The narrator’s heartbreaking love affair with an Irishman, her choice of wedding flowers, her research in cinematic history all seem so insignificant in comparison with the family’s dark past and her mother’s life-threatening illness that it’s sometimes hard to take her youthful needs seriously.

Billed as a novel, this book sometimes reads like a memoir—and suffers from that genre’s categorical ills. The first sections of the book seem more controlled by events than by the writer, making it hard to decipher, for instance, which characters are central, which scenes essential, which epiphanies lasting. By the middle, however, Sucher has regained control over her themes, and drives home so clearly the need not only to rescue memory, but to be rescued from it as well.