The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville

A poignant exploration of relationships offers a deep dive into the strong bonds that can form between people and everyday objects.

Kim Neville’s first novel The Memory Collectors is a feat of character and plot, as well as an intriguing consideration of the enormous significance objects and places can hold for different people.

In an opening prologue, the reader meets Evelyn, a child who loves working with her father in his antiques and restorations shop; it is a glimpse of idyllic family life. The novel then flashes forward to its central timeline: Ev is a young adult in Vancouver, socially isolated, making a living by picking through recycle bins and alley discards for items to sell at the Chinatown Night Market. Her relationship with her little sister Noemi is fractured. Their family experienced a tragedy that for much of the book remains unclear.

And then there is Harriet, an older woman with a hoarding problem and a mysterious connection to Ev. They share an ability to read an object’s emotional associations by touch or proximity, but they have very different feelings about this gift, or curse. Ev hides from things she thinks of as “stained,” living in new and undecorated spaces, and moving often as her own feelings settle in. Harriet collects the things she thinks of as “bright,” filling the spaces around her with borrowed emotions until she makes her neighbors ill with “the soft, scrambled buzz of thousands of stains.” Harriet hopes to use her collection to heal, with Ev’s help. But Ev may know better just how dangerous a brooch or a balsawood glider can be.

Ev is a heart-rending protagonist, paralyzed by her oversensitivity to the accrued memories and emotions of others. Because of her ability and her shadowed past, she keeps to herself, but still yearns for connection. Harriet’s isolation is different but parallel, as “the grubby, greedy, Gollum part of her” threatens to take over. A perceptive artist named Owen has something to offer each of them; he doesn’t feel objects as they do, but he might be better with people than either one. Ev’s sister is a troubled and troubling youth with secrets of her own. These characters form the rich heart of this tender, electric novel, which is also expertly plotted, with rising tension and danger, and carefully dispensed details from Ev’s murky family history.

The Memory Collectors is a remarkable piece of magical realism, imaginative and vivid in its specificity. Seemingly trivial items offer enormous symbolic opportunities. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, this story and its vibrant characters will stay with the reader long after the pages have closed.


This review originally ran in an abbreviated form as a *starred review* in the March 19, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 8 jade elephants.

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