Told sensitively and with personal insight, Ruth Eastham’s debut children’s novel, The Memory Cage, explores both the loss of memories through Alzheimer’s disease and the conflict of identity as a result of expatriation and adoption. Alex is a thirteen-year-old boy brought to England by his adoptive family during the Yugoslav Wars. Suppressing his internal conflict, Alex creates a ‘memory cage’ scrapbook to help his grandad recover the memories he’s lost to Alzheimer’s. Now the book is available as a brand-new edition, we spoke to Ruth about the inspiration behind the book, issue-based novels and some of the story's key themes.
The Memory Cage was your debut book, what inspired you to write it?
Just like Grandad’s portfolio of photographs in the book, it was a collection of war images that set the idea moving. All of my novels since have been inspired by real life events, and I’ve always found photos really powerful starting points for ideas. I also wanted to explore memories and their effects. I imagined a refugee boy from a modern day war zone with a past he’s trying to forget; his Grandad in the first stages of Alzheimer’s, struggling with memory loss. My own Grandad had the illness and I felt I could bring that personal emotion to the story.
Many popular children's books deal with hard-hitting issues such as Lisa Williamson's The Art of Being Normal and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Why did you choose to focus on difficult subjects such as refugee children from conflict zones, Alzheimer's and adoption?
I believe that there are few limits on the themes that can be explored in children’s books, so long as the stories are handled sensitively, and that it’s important not to shy away from issues. I didn’t consciously set out to write about adoption or Alzheimer’s as such, but these naturally became part of the novel. Whatever the issues though, storytelling is ultimately about finding a compelling story with characters you really care about.
The scrapbook Alex created for Grandad is way of protecting Grandad's memories – and could even be thought of as a way of conserving Grandad's younger self before his Alzheimer's took over. The scrapbook itself could be seen as a kind of ‘memory cage’. For you, what does the book’s title The Memory Cage refer to?
I’m often asked about the title, and it’s really interesting to hear the different interpretations. Alex wants to ‘trap’ Grandad’s memories for him as he sees it as a way of combating the Alzheimer’s and helping Grandad keep his self identity. You might say too that both Alex and Grandad are trapped by traumatic parts of their pasts that they have locked away and daren’t let free. We could maybe think of all our minds as types of memory cages, couldn’t we? A place where we store up our experiences, whether positive or negative. Do we make a cage for the memories we want to remember, or the ones we want to try and forget? It’s an intriguing question!
Alex and Granddad seem to be drawn to each other for a number of reasons – they've both experienced war, both are suppressing painful memories and they are both outsiders among their family. Is Alex's mission to help Grandad recover his memories a way of helping himself to be accepted by his adoptive family? Alex's brother in particular is much kinder towards him once Alex shows the family the scrapbook.
Yes, Alex and his grandad are very close, but I think Alex’s disconnection from his adoptive family is a lot to do with the unresolved issues inside himself. He distances himself, and in turn his family seem less caring than they are in reality. Leon isn’t the loving brother he should be, but he has issues of his own, and it’s ultimately his unhappiness and immaturity, I think, that makes him act the way he does towards Alex. Alex is desperate to keep his promise to Grandad, to stop him being put in a home, and the scrapbook is the only way he can think of to try and combat the Alzheimer’s. Subconsciously, though, as Grandad says later, by focusing on someone else’s past, Alex avoids having to face his own demons.
Do you think the scrapbook helps Alex come to terms with who he is? He's been through so many changes at such a young age – moving countries, being adopted, experiencing another culture, going from a war-torn environment to suburban England.
I think the scrapbook is a big turning point in Alex’s life, yes. It brings out truths that will first divide the family, and then help them to connect in a way they never could before. The scrapbook – and more importantly the journey to the truth it takes Alex on as he creates it – will be the trigger for him to face what happened to him and who he is now.
Following the release of The Memory Cage, did you receive letters or comments from readers who had experienced similar issues to those addressed in the book?
Yes. I’m very touched when readers, adults as well as children, write to me about the connections they made between the book and their own families’ experiences. Their letters are often very moving, and you sense that as a writer, in some small way, the stories you create can reach out to people. It feels a real privilege.