The Fiftieth Gate by Mark Raphael Baker is a book I’ve been reading because I have recently acquired an HSC student who is being tortured with it in school; he isn’t especially enjoying the book or the work associated with it!
Winner of the 1997 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, it is a study of history and memory based on Baker’s exploration of his parents’ history and their memories of World War II. It is well done as a combination of fact, memory, and personal reflection. It varies between offerings of his parents’ first hand accounts, factual documentation, and imagined descriptions and narratives of events that happened in his family’s history.
There are parts of this novel that bored me – mainly the long lists of towns I can’t pronounce – yet there are also parts of this novel that remind you how precious memories are; memory is so intrinsic to your definition of self that I cannot fathom how dementia patients feel when they begin to lose self-defining memories. More than anything, the novel validates the importance of memory to the individual – sometimes regardless of the facts.
While my seventeen year old student isn’t enjoying the novel, I appreciate it for what it does as a study of history and memory. It’s not something I would normally read, however, and if not for my student I would not have picked it up and chosen it!