Stories about complete retrograde amnesia tend to make critics groan. Maybe it's because the syndrome appears so rarely in real life and so often on soap operas. Amnesia has a built-in fascination: Who hasn't fantasized about forgetting his or her past and starting over as someone new? But in the hands of many writers, amnesia is a way to spark interest in a character -- Who is she really? -- without working for it.
Luckily, Sarah Van Arsdale isn't one of them. A former Hinesburg resident who now lives part-time in Bennington, she's no stranger to the subject: Her first novel was called Toward Amnesia. In Blue, winner of the University of Tennessee's Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, a young woman discovered on a bridge in a small Maine town has only one memory: the color blue, which soon becomes her name.
Like most tales of amnesia, Blue uses Blue's condition to create suspense. Who is this woman? What brought her here? What trauma wiped out her internal hard drive? But Van Arsdale strays from the formula by making Blue primarily a story about the effect an amnesiac can have on others -- people who use Blue as a blank screen onto which they project their own desires and fears.
Blue's most obsessive observer is Rita LaPlatte, a native of the town of Intervale who delivers newspapers by day and haunts pool tables by night. Raised by an alcoholic single mother, Rita is a control freak by nature and a swinging single girl by design. Convinced she has a twin despite her mom's insistence to the contrary, she latches onto Blue as a likely candidate for the long-lost sibling. Rita may be a few cards short of a deck, but the more we learn about her, the better we understand that she needs the fantasy of a twin unspoiled by life to counterbalance her own disturbing memories.
Bob Reichman, the psychiatrist who tries to jog Blue's past back into place, has his own issues with memory. A child of Holocaust survivors, he has lost touch with the Orthodox Judaism of his youth. When his father's memory begins to succumb to Alzheimer's, Reich-man fears a sort of cultural amnesia. He wonders: "In the Diaspora, how many Jews are there who, like Blue, have forgotten all they'd been instructed to remember? Amnesic, wandering into their lives without knowing who they are, or who they could be?"
The novel is meticulously researched. Childlike at first and focused on physical sensations, Blue returns to normal in a realistically gradual process that keeps us at a distance from her. When she does start to unearth memories, they read like a private code, at once banal and inaccessible, revealing nothing about the trauma that brought her here.
Conditioned by other amnesia stories, we may want a dramatic revelation of Blue's identity: something special in her past that made her forget. Van Arsdale plays with our expectations by suggesting that, for the most part, memories' meanings are intensely subjective. When Blue withholds a memory from Dr. Reichman -- setting in motion a chain of mistaken identity -- she does so not because the memory is traumatic but simply because she doesn't know how to convey it to another person without leaving it meaningless, "stripped down, laid bare."
Like Blue the character, Blue the novel is moody, slow-moving and focused on the sensual textures of life. Vivid and fluid as watercolors, Van Arsdale's descriptions of the town of Intervale will elicit shivers of recognition in anyone who knows the northern landscape: "The black trees scratch outlines against the trembling lavender November sky, the dark water motionless as a dropped penny."
The language gets more overwrought when we enter the mind of Annie Naiad, a homeless wanderer who, like so many literary crazy people, speaks the truth clothed in metaphor and symbol. Her disordered thought patterns are convincingly psychotic. As for the poetry and Biblical references, you may want to suspend your disbelief and simply enjoy the ride.
It's Annie who turns out to be the linchpin of the plot, and of the novel's ending. Without giving it away, I can say that readers with a secret weakness for soaps -- myself included -- will be thoroughly absorbed by the end of Blue. We do get our dramatic revelation, but not without irony and insight. Watching her dog play in the yard, Blue envies "the way for him it's always simply now, now, now." By the end she will have learned that, while we may draw strength from the past, now, now, now is all we really have.