The Memory Box by Kathryn Hughes

The Memory Box

Kathryn Hughes

Jenny Tanner opens the box containing her most precious mementoes, amongst them a pebble, a carving and a newspaper cutting she can hardly bear to read. But Jenny knows the time is finally here. After the war, in a mountainside village in Italy, she left behind a piece of her heart. However painful, she must return to Cinque Alberi and lay the past to rest.

After a troubled upbringing, Candice Barnes dreams of a future with the love of her life – but is he the man she believes him to be? When Candice is given the opportunity to travel to Italy with Jenny, she is unaware the trip will open her eyes to the truth she’s been too afraid to face.


The Memory Box opens with Jenny Tanner celebrating her 100th birthday in the residential home where she has been living for the past few years. Celebrating the landmark occasion with the staff and other residents, Jenny realises she has outlived everyone she ever loved and it is time to make amends. Having formed a bond with Candice, one of the young carers, Jenny shows her a box full of keepsakes she has collected over the years and asks if Candice will accompany her to Italy so she can lay some ghosts to rest before she dies. Candice is taken aback by the request, especially considering Jenny’s age, but the old woman is very persuasive and Candice finds herself agreeing to the crazy plan.

Candice, who is in her twenties, works at the home to save money to do the courses she needs to qualify as a beautician but she has a manipulative boyfriend who wants to control every part of her life and seems oblivious to it. Jenny recognises it though and is hoping the trip to Italy will make Candice wake up to her situation before it is too late.

As Jenny plans her trip, memories bubble to the surface, and we learn more about Jenny and her past. Born in Manchester, Jenny was evacuated with her young brother, Louis, during the Second World War and ended up living on a farm in Wales. Although Jenny was in her early twenties and technically too old to be included in the evacuation process, she was lame after suffering from polio and her mother was determined to keep her children together. Jenny thrives on the clean air on the farm and the family make them both feel welcome despite the fact they were looking for two strong boys to help with the farm work. Jenny begins to form a strong friendship with the farmer’s son, Lorcan, who is obviously smitten with her.

However, things get complicated when Jenny falls in love with Nico, the son of Italian immigrants, who finds himself suddenly being detained when Italy allies with Germany. When the ship transporting detainees abroad is sunk, Nico is declared dead and a distraught Jenny eventually comes to appreciate Lorcan’s attentions. Just as she is on the point of marrying Lorcan, Nico returns and Jenny’s world is thrown into chaos. Realising she doesn’t love Lorcan the way she loves Nico, Jenny jilts him and marries Nico instead. Jenny is forced to leave her brother behind as she makes the dangerous journey to Italy but her life doesn’t turn out the way she expected as she realises she married a virtual stranger and things get worse when Nico begins working with the partisans.

The narrative moves between the present and the past as Jenny’s story is slowly revealed, however it also jumps time frames which interferes with the flow of the story and makes it a little jarring. I loved the setting in Wales but since we know Jenny’s story moves to Italy it was obvious from the start Nico would reappear at some point so the twist falls flat. Despite still being considered an enemy alien, Nico seems to be able to move about the country at will and they seem to get into Italy surprisingly easy. Back in his home town, Nico seems to undergo a complete change of personality but he is thankfully absent for much of the time.

The town of Cinque Alberi has an idyllic setting which captivates Jenny when she first sees it and also works its magic on Candice in the present, however there is also a sense something dark happened in the past as Candice and Jenny’s arrival coincides with a 75th anniversary commemoration. The reason for the commemoration is kept under wraps until near the end of Jenny’s return visit but it is based on true events which happened in other Italian towns during the war.

There are so many elements in this book that intrigued me, yet I felt the story didn’t focus enough on any one aspect before it was darting away on to something else. There was enough drama going on in Jenny’s life without the added twists which were a tad too obvious. I also lost patience when the narrative moved to Candice and Beau because their whole relationship was irritating and unnecessary.