A Thief in the House of Memory

by Tim Wynne-Jones
ISBN: 0888995741

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A Review of: A Thief in the House of Memory
by Antony Di Nardo

All the ingredients for what may well be a gothic murder mystery are in place in this page-turner for young adults by two-time G-G winner, Tim Wynne-Jones: the body that is found in the abandoned, ancestral mansion; the persistent suspicions that a murder took place; and the surprising twists as the reader nears the end. Tim Wynne-Jones, however, eschews the murder mystery formula in order to achieve something entirely different, a novel of suspense that examines memory as a central theme in the shaping of experience.
Declan Steeple is a bright16-year old whose memories of his absent mother return to him as vivid re-creations of his childhood past. He longs to find the truth about his missing mother who abandoned the family when he was ten. Did she really leave, as his father claims, and why? Is she alive and, if so, where is she?
When Declan and his 6-year-old sister discover the body of a would-be thief in the estate known as Steeple Hall, his mother's character and her tattered past become intertwined with his attempt to solve both the puzzle of her disappearance and the death of the burglar. His father, Bernard, sole inheritor of the Steeple fortune and committed to preserving the past as it is, stifles his attempts.
Steeple Hall, the ancestral home for generations of the Steeple family, is the book's House of Memory. It evokes comparisons, as one of Declan's classmates says, to Poe's House of Usher. After Declan's mother leaves the family, his father builds a smaller, more modest house down the hill from the mansion for his children and Birdie, their new "mother." However, Steeple Hall is not entirely abandoned by them. It is lovingly maintained by Bernard (whose passion for history has him building a scale model replica of the Canadians landing at Juno Beach on D-Day) as a museum to the Steeple name, a place to store the past. For Declan the old mansion is also a link to the past and he makes regular visits to his former home and bedroom in order to relive memories of his mother.
With the help of Ezra, a school friend who serves as a foil for his ideas and suspicions, Declan discovers that his mother's past is as tainted as Bernard and Birdie's coverup of the truth. In the House of Memory he learns that "the past is what happens when the present has no future in it." He also realizes by the end of the novel that when one world ends, there's another one about to begin. The ambiguity of who really is the thief in the House of Memory deepens as the story unfolds. Figuratively, there are several. And inasmuch as the house is a memory-maker for Declan, helping to reconstruct his mother's past, it also liberates the truth that makes the present bearable for everyone at Steeple Hall.
Such is the writing skill of Tim Wynne-Jones that an adolescent reader will recognize in A Thief in the House of Memory that a good story, a story that hums with the dynamics of human relationships, gets told through character and theme as much as it reveals itself through a well-constructed plot. That same reader will also appreciate the fast-paced, sturdy writing of an author who paints his scenes with images equally as well as he furnishes his House of Memory with ideas worth thinking about.

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