The Memory Chamber by Holly Cave

An intriguing concept undermined by a rushed and underdeveloped opening act
The Memory Chamber book cover

With the premise of Holly Cave's new novel, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a literary version of The Good Place. But Heaven Architect Isobel is no omnipotent Ted Danson, and The Memory Chamber no comedy. 

Cave's idea here is an interesting one. After you die, your consciousness is transferred to a 'heaven', a place made up of memories from your life that you've chosen with a Heaven Architect before your death. You're not alive, but merely exist in a state of contentment, re-experiencing particular life moments on repeat.

Naturally such a premise produces interesting ethical questions, such as: Should people who feature in your heaven have to consent to being there? Should law enforcement have access to heavens when investigating crimes even though the suspects cannot grant permission? Should we even be creating 'heavens' in the first place?

Though queried in the text, these issues are not the driving force behind the narrative. This lies with the protagonist Isobel - or Izzy - through whom the story is related. Her brief and reckless fling with a client, a subsequent criminal investigation and other far-reaching consequences of are her actions, are what propel the story forward.

The primary problem with The Memory Chamber is that the tension and drama - indeed the 'thrill' in this thriller - is reliant on buying into Izzy's feelings for her client, Jarek. Unfortunately, this is incredibly hard to do. As someone championed as the best in her field, understanding how Izzy could behave so irresponsibly and fall so quickly and deeply for someone she's only just met, never feels believable.

This scepticism taints the remainder of the novel, detracting from otherwise intriguing events, such as when Izzy’s mind is connected to Jarek's heaven in the hope she can clear him of a crime he’s been accused of, an act that has never been previously attempted in this world. Her unwavering faith in a man she's known five minutes consistently undermines the impact of this process, and almost everything else in the novel. More time spent building their relationship into something credible would’ve made Izzy's considerable sacrifice to clear Jarek’s name far more meaningful.

Despite this, Cave's prose is pacy and allows the larger implications of such a future set up to resonate, and it keeps the pages turning. Her science would put Star Trek to shame, being both detailed yet vague enough to feel believable, while Izzy's colourful trip to India provides a welcome change of landscape to the otherwise London-based locale.

The political instability that frames the story also provides welcome and relevant context, offering uncomfortable questions about whether this fantasy world could one day become our reality.

An intriguing concept undermined by a rushed and underdeveloped opening act. Not the thriller it portends to be, but not unenjoyable.

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