Writings / Reviews

Memoir Review

Mnemonic: A Book of Trees

by Theresa Kishkan
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2011
240pp. $19.95

It always seems like risky business to pick up a memoir of someone you’ve never heard of – how can you be sure they’ve had an interesting life, and so on. In the case of Mnemonic: A Book of Trees by Theresa Kishkan, however, perhaps the biggest draw is the premise.

A mnemonic is a memory key – a kind of imposed structure that organizes things so that they become memorable. In this case, Kishkan uses trees as a mnemonic for looking back and understanding her life, and she structures her memoir in the same way. As a lens through which to look back on life, and for a woman raised mostly in British Columbia surrounded by some of the most majestic trees on Earth, it certainly works. The symbol of the tree as a structure for a memoir allows Kishkan to break out of the expected linear, autobiography and ties moments together in the less logical but more appealing way our brains do.

Of course, as it is possible in most people’s lives, Kishkan could have chosen many other mnemonics – the various houses she lived in over the years, for example: her father was in the military, so they moved around when she was a child and later she travelled quite a bit herself.   Or her forays into the arts or other activities  – horseback riding, opera singing, art, print making, basket weaving, and the writing of poetry, her chosen vocation. Either of these would have been suitable, and certainly both experiences appear again and again in the book’s chapters. However, this would have imposed a linear temporal progression based on experiences she actively took part in whereas trees are fixed in space, rooted and immobile and, as place-bound mnemonics, are more likely to connect disparate parts of your life in a non-linear way.

Kishkan has won several awards for her essays, so it’s no wonder that Mnemonic is a beautiful read. I could complain and say the description is, at some points, rather overwritten, but it would be a false complaint because the atmosphere of the book is such that it took me away from the crowded and noisy streetcars where I read to country roads in Ireland and small villages in Greece and remote homes in B.C. Through her description, Kishkan is slowing the reader down so they can revel in all the little details that so captivate her, and it works. She forces the reader to her pace, the better for them to get to know her.

In the end, that’s the point of a memoir ­ – the writer lays out their life for strangers to read about and then discuss. By the end of Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I certainly felt that I knew Kishkan but, perhaps, more like a long-time and distant neighbour than as a close confidant. It isn’t that she’s stingy about revealing herself, but rather that she has chosen to focus on certain areas of her life and leave more intimate details aside. Hers is a beautiful, personal memoir, and Kishkan offers up just enough to be generous and interesting while allowing her private life to remain intact.

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