Sam McCoy is 17. Sam McCoy was going to be someone – and then she became ill. Now, she must figure out who she is…..
Told in a diary style narrative, The Memory Book follows Sam McCoy as she deals with a life-changing illness. Diagnosed with Niemann-Pick, a form of dementia, Sam will inevitably lose her memory. Determined to give herself the best possible chance of remembering who she is, Sam starts a memory book, like a diary, telling her future self (Future Sam) who she is and what she wants from life. As she writes, Sam discovers the plans she has made for herself – winning the Nationals, making the Valedictorian speech and going to NYU – are less and less likely to be achieved but with dogged determination she fights her way forward. Sam’s friends and family provide some support and advice but it’s not always welcome; her illness affects them too. As it progresses, Sam has less and less freedom, which for a teenager desperate to break free is increasingly frustrating. Sam starts to realise perhaps she isn’t the person she thought she was and it’s only through the memory book that her true self is revealed.
The Memory Book is an utterly compelling young adult story and I read it in one sitting, staying up till 1am to finish it. In practical terms, it’s very easy to read with some ‘chapters’ only one line long (so a good choice for teens who don’t want to read a ‘long’ book). But in emotional terms, it’s heart-wrenching, with the final scenes in particular causing a flood of tears. I loved Sam; she’s bold and brave and totally inspiring considering what she is facing. I loved her debate partner Maddie; who takes no prisoners and says it like it is – causing conflict here and there. I loved Coop; the unassuming, ‘dope-smoker’ from next door, who turns out to be *spoiler alert* the best friend a girl could have. Sam’s family (Mum and Dad, a brother and two sisters, all younger) are introduced to us through childhood memories as well as ‘current’ moments and Sam’s own predictions of what she thinks her siblings will be like in the future. Particularly poignant is the scene where Sam lapses into memory loss and ‘forgets’ one of her sisters – with her sister understandably distraught at being ‘forgotten’ even if only temporarily. Sam’s parents work hard to pay the inevitable medical bills and to stay strong through the horrendous ordeal of watching their child’s health deteriorate. Through the various relationships Sam has, including with Stuart Shah her schoolgirl crush, the journey of self-discovery is significant. As the reader, you rejoice with her when she manages to achieve some of her goals, mourn those she can’t and feel absolute heartache as her “body is failing”. Slowly, Sam starts to realise those things she placed so much hope in are not as important as she thought. This realisation helps her to embrace the life she now has and do her best to enjoy it; a lesson we can all learn along with her.
As a mother myself, I cannot bear the thought of having my sons going through an illness like this. It’s bad enough when they have the flu – you’d do anything to make them feel better. Magnify this by about a million and that is how I imagine Sam’s mother to feel. Her words to Sam, her eldest daughter, written in The Memory Book are just beautiful. The story of Sam McCoy will stay with you long after reading.