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A Review of J.M. Monaco’s “How We Remember”

Cover image from J.M. Monaco’s novel How We Remember

CONTENT WARNING: discussions of sexual assault, cancer, death by suicide, and drug/alcohol abuse.

As a passionate researcher in memory studies I am always drawn to books, both fiction and nonfiction, that draw on and play with the way we remember collectively and individually. J.M. Monaco’s novel is an exquisitely painful exploration of collective remembering within families as well as a close study of the manipulation and willful forgetting that accompanies families that experience trauma.

The story jumps between present-day and Jo’s childhood. Jo returns to her hometown as her mother, Terry, enters palliative care before she dies of lung cancer. Upon her death, Terry leaves her children, Jo and David, along with her husband a sizeable inheritance. Jo is also tasked with going through her mother’s belongings and she comes across a diary her mother kept. The diary is arguably the catalyst that forces Jo to not just remember her past, but to actively engage with her personal traumas that include not just the sexual assault she experienced by her Uncle Ron, but also the traumas that followed after her family pressures her to rescind her truth.

Incest is a type of sexual trauma that comes with more than just the trauma of the act itself. It forcibly rips families apart. It asks people to choose between two people that they love and that they ‘should’ know well. When Uncle Ron drugs and assaults Jo when she is a teenager in 1976, Jo is so afraid and confused by what happened that she never fully feels able to tell her story. Indeed, sexual violence mixed with drugs makes the victim less ‘believable’ for many people. The drugs effects on memory and cognition compounded by the trauma inflicted on Jo’s body mean that she is not a ‘reliable’ narrator of her experiences because she cannot clearly remember what happened. Mixed in with this is the shame of the assault and the fact that the rapist is her adult uncle. All of this in and of itself would be enough trauma for one body. Yet Jo’s Aunty Peggy, who is Ron’s wife, ignores Terry and Jo. She asks Terry, her own sister, to write a statement saying that she doesn’t believe Jo and the rape never happened otherwise she will ostracize Terry and Terry’s immediate family from the rest of the family. This is heartbreaking and sadly, no fictional exaggeration.

“I don’t believe any of what she said about you. You need to know that, right?”

“Then why, Ma? Why?”

The smile switches off and within a couple of minutes she is weeping quietly through her words. “She’s my sister. It’s family. It’s so hard. I go to family get-togethers and we’re all there and things aren’t right. Peggy’s different to me, ignores me. And now she’s saying she’s finished with me if I don’t do this.”

Conversation between Jo and Terry about Aunty Peggy’s request.

This exchange between Jo and her mother is an excellent example of the many layers of trauma inflicted on families that have been touched by incest. It also highlights the very painful reality that victims of sexual assault are rarely believed.

Jo’s life is changed by not just the rape, but by the betrayal of her mother who eventually placates Peggy’s request. After this, Jo makes decisions that allow her to leave the U.S. and move to London where she has a fairly successful life as an academic. She marries a kind man called Jon and I believe it is her desire to escape her family, the rape, and the shame that comes with it all that propels her to London. Jo’s life is not just shaped by assault, but also by her sometimes abusive and often drunk father, her drug addicted brother, and her flaky mother. Each pillar in her close family has let her down in more ways than she can count and when she returns to look after her mother until she passes away, Jo is forcibly confronted by everything she tried to escape in London.

Jo feels obligated to return and look after her mother. Her mother’s aforementioned words “It’s family” ring throughout every decision that Jo makes upon her return. When her father dies by suicide after her mother’s death, Jo returns again to clean up and organise the mess that is left behind. Again, “it’s family”. However, upon the death of her father, Jimmy, Jo is released in some ways of her families dysfunctional ways. Her mother and father are gone. Aunty Peggy is gone. She has made peace with her brother David and she tells him she will not help him anymore. Her Uncle Jon is old and not far from the grave. In death, everything becomes final. Secrets are left stagnant, layers of truth are buried literally and figuratively, and all that is left is the struggle to live with everything that was said and unsaid.

Monaco’s novel is not an easy read due to the traumas brought up throughout the novel, however, I would argue that it is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that challenges how memories are told and retold in narratives.

Do you enjoy reading novels that play on memory and remembering? As always, share the reading love.

NOTE: This novel was was accessed through Netgalley and Red Door Publishing for review purposes.