The Key to YesterdayJuly 10, 2012
I get so excited about books that feature a main character with memory loss, but I generally end up disappointed. I have yet to find a pre-1923 amnesia-centric story that gives me what I want. Charles Neville Buck’s The Key to Yesterday gave me very little of what I wanted, but at the same time, it’s probably the best public domain amnesia novel I’ve read. If that’s a thing.
I mean, it’s also kind of silly. It begins with painter Robert A. Saxon falling half in love at first sight with a girl named Duska. And then Saxon confesses to his friend Steele that he steers clear of women because he has no knowledge of his life before about six years ago and he might already be married or something. But whatever. We know he’s going to fall in love with Duska. We knew it before we knew her ridiculous name.
Here’s the deal: Saxon is a name he made up for himself. He found himself out West somewhere with no memory and became a cowboy. Then he became an artist, although he didn’t really get good until he became acquainted with the work of Frederick Marston, a great modern painter. People say he’s Marston’s greatest disciple, but that he could be better than Marston if he stopped copying him. Marston, meanwhile, apparently wanders the world incognito, sending unsigned canvases back to his agent in Paris. Also, Saxon’s got a rusty key that he carries around, apparently from the time before he lost his memory, and he believes that he’ll solve the mystery of his past when he figures out what it opens.
Anyway, Saxon and Duska fall in love and he explains to her that he doesn’t know who he is or whether he’s married or something. And he also explains to her how that South American guy at the dinner party the second time they met, the one who told the story about the revolutionary nearly getting executed and then embezzling a couple of hundred thousand dollars, was really pointedly telling the story to Saxon, and he thinks he might be the guy in the story, especially since he has a corroboratory scar. He sticks around long enough to paint a portrait of Duska, which is, of course, the best work he’s ever done, and then he goes off to South America to research his past.
He quickly finds a guy who recognizes him as George Carter, and assumes he’s found his identity, but things may not be that simple. Basically, you’ve got three mysterious figures: Carter, Marston, and Saxon himself, and your job as the reader is to try and figure out which of them might be identical with each other.
It’s kind of a crazy book, bouncing back and forth between idyllic Kentuckian countryside, a revolution-ridden South American capitol, and the Latin Quarter of Paris, and too many loose ends aren’t dealt with. Also, I wanted to like Duska a lot more than I did, and I’m not sure what would have had to happen to accomplish that. But the book also managed to be suspenseful and exciting, and if none of the subplots were really satisfying on their own, there were enough little bits of awesomeness to make it a lot of fun on the whole. It took a while for me to get on board with The Key to Yesterday, but once I did I stayed there.