Book Review: Yesterday

Yesterday, by Felicia Yap, is set in an alternative, contemporary world where memory is limited to the previous day (monos) or the day before that (duos). In order to function adults are required to keep diaries where they write down significant thoughts and events. If not written down and subsequently learnt, there can be no recollection of actions or feelings.

Duos consider themselves superior and hold the majority of the powerful and lucrative positions. Intermarriage between monos and duos is rare and frowned upon. As well as the perceived intellectual superiority, few duos are willing to risk creating a mono child.

Mark and Claire Evans defied this popular prejudice resulting in Mark, a duo from a wealthy family, being disinherited. Now a successful author and aspiring politician, he is risking his twenty year marriage to his mono wife by indulging in an affair. When his mistress is found dead in a nearby river he becomes a suspect in a potential murder investigation. The police must gather evidence quickly before ‘live’ memories are lost. People choose what they write in their diaries so the records will always be skewed and incomplete.

Chapters narrate events from a variety of points of view. Sophia has recently been released from a mental asylum after seventeen years and now seeks revenge on those she blames for her incarceration. Claire suffers from depression, is appalled by her husband’s behaviour, but does not believe he is a killer. Mark is fighting to salvage the career of his dreams but has much to hide, especially from his wife. Hans, the detective investigating the murder, has access to the dead woman’s diary but struggles to accept that what he is reading could be true.

To enjoy this story it is necessary to suspend belief, as is of course the case for many fictional tales. There have been a number of thrillers written recently which deal with the memory loss of a protagonist who then suffers manipulation from supposed loved ones. This story involves an entire population of amnesiacs. Readers must accept that the likes of doctors have somehow found a way to qualify and do their jobs in this environment, that it is possible to make certain facts integral to being.

Aspects of the plot brought to mind The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (Fay Weldon). I also enjoyed the occasional news report or excerpt from official guidelines which helped to put into context this society’s habitual limitations.

The tight prose skips along apace. The issue of memory is fundamental – how each person curates their experiences and subsequently presents them, how identity is shaped. Initially I found the characters lacking in depth in a way that reminded me of my first impressions of Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro). As the story progressed this was shown to be fitting. The population are forced to rely on the veracity of their own written words to work out who and what they are. I pondered if this is so very different to more common forms of memory curation.

Although it took me some time to fully engage, the story developed into a thought provoking tale. Issues explored would make it an ideal choice for a book group. This was an enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Wildfire.

Advertisements

Book Review: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Wildfire.

Unravelling the Knot of Inherited Memory – Guest Post by Miranda Gold

I have visited two Memorial Sites to the Nazi death camps – Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Both had a profound impact on me. This is as it should be. If we are to learn from history, to prevent a repeat of such atrocities, we must both remember and reflect on how they were allowed to happen.

But what if memory damages the lives of not just those who experienced such evil but also their descendents? In her debut novel, Starlings (which I review here), my guest today, Miranda Gold, writes of a young woman whose life is stymied by her family’s struggle to cope with the effects of the Nazi holocaust. Although a work of fiction it is based on the author’s personal family history. In this guest post she shares with us how fact can inspire fiction, and how memory is often woven from both.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Miranda Gold.

pic

I was twelve that summer my parents took my brother and me to The Holocaust Memorial Museum. We didn’t need a prologue on the Amtrak from Boston to Washington D.C.; the narrative of my grandfather’s flight from Nazi Germany had underpinned our lives. Though ‘narrative’ is misleading – as though the story was singular and had a tidy, linear arc. Instead there were fragments that assembled themselves into a patchwork, something we’d only begin to see in retrospect, something I’m still trying to understand. I was given snatches sitting by my mother’s bed on the days when she wouldn’t get up – she’d ask me to stay with her, saying she was frightened of being alone. Or, some nights, a sudden burst about her father, the parents he’d left behind, a picture of the stripped bodies and the laughing SS engraved by her stop-start words. It was in the subtext of her threats, her cautions, always flickering beneath the surface like a lizard’s tongue. Yet we made our way to the Holocaust Memorial Museum as though it was just an item on an itinerary – though that should have been warning enough: we had never done itineraries before; holidays meant ice cream, squabbles and swimming costumes. This is what we expected and this is what we’d remember – and it would only be a few days before we’d be doing a relatively good impression of a family still in one piece. We’d get to Cape Cod and share a house with a couple who called each other bunny love and panda cub, who made their children silver dollar pancakes for breakfast and collected jingle shells. We played along for two weeks, never needing to be told what not to say. I always thought my mother behaved impeccably, her fears kept in check, her physical ailments joked off when they couldn’t quite be concealed. I wasn’t only grateful for the pretence, I slipped into it, and no one asked why my mother didn’t come along for bike ride and wouldn’t go in the sea, why we had to wait while my father disentangled himself from her attempts to keep him from coming downstairs – her stomach, her head – he couldn’t leave her, not now. The illusion didn’t crack until the mother of the other family pulled me aside to say, ‘Gee, I guess you’re mom is kinda sick,’ and squeezed my arm, ‘she gets kinda mad too, huh?’

Never forget goes the refrain. But what if the memories you have aren’t your own, handed down, told and retold like an inheritance that could never be spent? It was the silences that hung between the words that kept us listening, both anticipating and dreading what would come next – because something always did come next, it was never over; the telling remained compulsive because the story was never quite told, enclosing us in a terror that drew much of its force from remaining unknown. Perhaps it was this that made me feel, standing outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum under a perfect sky, that my head was being held under water. My mother would hear her father wake himself calling out for his parents; his nightmares became hers, hers became mine. Death never frightened me – but being caught did, it was the waiting that kept me up most nights, sure every sound was the Nazis coming for me. I dusted the nights off in the morning, put on my school uniform, tried to brush out the knots in my hair. Those nights didn’t lunge into daylight until we got to the museum in D.C. I felt the plunge in my stomach and knew I couldn’t go in – the atmosphere I’d grown up in dropped round me like a broken parachute.

My brother, then nine, went round with my father while my mother and I sat on the grass outside. I remember us laughing, her teaching me how to do different American accents – and that was the best version of her I’d ever met; just when we’d both come to the edge of our nightmares and closed our eyes she was suddenly alive. This must have been the woman people would tell me about after she died twenty years later, people whose words I would come to treasure and resent at once, conjuring a woman I’d had glimpses of but never known.

When I first began writing Starlings I did not consciously set out to transcribe my story or my family’s – if I had done, I have failed abysmally. Instead bits of my history crept up on me and on to the page, mixing with the characters I’d met parts of and arranged into being. The question ‘Is it autobiographical?’ seems to me to have little value. Novels, like dreams, play out variations of ourselves, our lives – I know I can’t hide any more than I know I can’t, caught up in my own subjective experience, write about my own experience without slipping into fiction. Tell the truth but tell it slant. Is there really any other way to tell it? The truth often is slant – we are all seeing it from different angles and what catches the light today is rarely what we saw. There is also the more fundamental matter of just getting by, of muddling through moment to moment and then, later, withstanding the threat of memory – both its power and its fragility. Human kind may not be able to bear very much reality – but sometimes our survival depends on our instinct to keep it at a remove. Even as I write this I question how much an inescapable element of self-consciousness makes me stray.

Starlings had perhaps already been written before I’d started it, but I couldn’t know that until I’d found a shape for it six years later. The stories I’d been told had become the backdrop to my life; one I couldn’t see I’d been woven into, only one I could feel as it began to unravel – it couldn’t hold together because the few facts I had were always shifting; the contours of reality continually redrawn like a country carved and re-carved after war. Only fiction seemed to offer a space that might circle the instability of hand-me-down memories, containing without erasing the paradoxes, holding the lacunae, to unlock another kind of truth. Not a truth that could be verified against sources, but one distilled from the fear kept alive from what had been left unsaid.

Spliced with silence, ever shifting, the stories I grew up with had an elusive quality that made their pulse relentless; if they had held still they might have become objects I could have set down. Words have been set down now, though, I hope, not definitively – Sally’s story is not mine, even if it might have grown out of it. Reading and writing can sound the echo of ourselves – but there is also the invitation to go beyond that. Where that’s located is different for each of us, but between the words written and the words read, the strange and the familiar become indistinguishable and that’s when fiction ‘truly’ starts to find its shape.

Starlings may have been written before I’d started it, but it was, nevertheless, a matter of making marks in the void, thinking I’d discovered new territory only to find it was already inhabited.

.

Miranda Gold is a writer currently based in London. Before turning her focus to fiction, Miranda took the Soho Theatre Course for young writers, where her play, Lucky Deck, was selected for development and performance. Starlings is currently being adapted for the stage. She is now working on her second novel.

starlings

Starlings will be published by Karnac Books on 1st December 2016

Book Review: Adult Onset

adultonset

Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald, is a powerful and hard hitting story about parenting, depression, memory and the scars that are carried within families.

The protagonist, Mary Rose, is a successful author who has put her writing career on hold in order to raise her two young children. She lives in fear of something hurting them, especially herself.

During the week in which the story is set her wife is working out of town leaving Mary Rose to cope on her own. As she struggles with the insatiable demands of her intransigent two year old daughter she considers her own upbringing and her sometimes fraught relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

When Mary Rose was her daughter’s age her mother gave birth to a son who died. In the months that followed she struggled to cope, relying on her older daughter, Maureen, for help. However, when Maureen was at school she would be alone with Mary Rose, often ignoring her and leaving her to cry. She was depressed and incapable of dealing with her younger child’s needs. Mary Rose has hazy memories of this time but struggles to order them or to fill in certain blanks that she believes hold the key to an injury which coloured her childhood.

Even aside from this traumatic time theirs was not always a happy home. Due to the Rh factor in her mother’s blood she suffered multiple miscarriages and a still birth as well as this early loss of a living child. Her three surviving children grew up aware of their dead siblings and Mary Rose carries guilt for the negative thoughts that she had about them at the time.

As the week progresses Mary Rose struggles to deal with her internalised anger, her memories and her feelings of isolation. To those around she appears to be coping but beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. She questions if her fear of abusing her child is because she herself suffered abuse that she cannot now recall. It becomes important to her to find out from her family what went on. Even when raised the detail of their memories often differs from her own, each having lived from their own perspective.

This story is a slow burner. It portrays the frustrations of full time motherhood by allowing the thought processes and narrative to be constantly interrupted by the minutae of life with a toddler and a school aged child. The flashbacks to Mary Rose’s mother’s life seem more compelling in these early pages. I was not truly drawn in until around half way through after which I could not put the book down.

It is easy to blame parents for their behaviour despite being aware that they raised their children by the mores of the time. It is easy to recall things said in anger and grant these words precedence over kinder thoughts. It can be hard to deal with conflicting memories from siblings when what is desired is an ally.

All of this is explored alongside Mary Rose’s current relationships with her family and friends. We see a life that is accelerating towards a precipice.

The denouement is beautifully done. I particularly liked the way in which the plot lines of Mary Roses’s books were woven in. This may not be a tale of happy ever after but neither is life. The important questions were answered, even if these were not always the ones being asked.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre. 

 

 

Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5

1506503_10200295742432264_9000252299338347480_n

Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a story about memory, time travel and the futility of war. The author was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire bombed by the allied forces in 1945 killing 135,000 people and devastating the city. This experience is pivotal to the story. As its narrator he opines that, like Lot’s wife, we are not supposed to look back lest we be lost. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time, travelling backwards and forwards through his life. What is recollection, memory, thought, if not a type of time travel?

‘We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past had been like, […] saw what the future would be like, […]. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.’

Billy Pilgrim considers time to be like space. In his view death is simply another moment, a feature on the path of a life. People will continue to exist if remembered.

‘We will all live forever no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be.’

The tale told is a collection of memories, a non linear life story. In many ways Billy would be considered ordinary: a son, husband, father, successful optometrist. In other ways he was extraordinary: prisoner of war, plane crash survivor, time traveller, alien abductee.

When he starts to share some of his more bizarre memories his daughter remonstrates with him, fearing that he is losing his mind. He asks, what is normal? Bookstores are filled with books about sex and murder; the news is of sport and death; people pay to look at pictures of others, like themselves but with no clothes on; they get excited about the price of things that do not exist called stocks and bonds. These things are accepted yet when someone tries to talk of what is not understood it is not believed, it is assumed that it cannot have happened.

At one point in the book Billy is watching a war film backwards.

‘American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off […]. Over France a few German fighter planes […] sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. […] a German city was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. […] everything and everybody as good as new. […] factories were operating night and day dismantling the cylinders […] so they would never hurt anybody ever again.’

War is accepted yet it kills and destroys.

The observations on attitudes are razor sharp. The story resounds with wit and wisdom as it challenges normality. Billy may have conflated fact and fiction at times but who is to judge what is real in anyone else’s life?

I loved this book. I fear that my review cannot do justice to the impact of the writing. I want to quote so much; better that you just go and read it for yourself.

epigraph

 

 

 

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

10923295_10200168952302590_5678184856292462203_n (1)

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, is a thriller about power within relationships, emotional abuse and the unreliability of memory.  It explores an individual’s selective vision, the lies we tell ourselves in order to maintain the fantasies in which we wish to live. It lays bare how memory is a construct as much as a recollection, that interpretation can rely on corroboration. It questions the fanciful, selfish reasons for trust, how we judge and are judged.

Rachel is struggling with her life. She has lost her husband, her job and her self respect. Each day she travels to London by train, passing the house where she once lived. She watches a young couple who now live nearby, imagining the happy lives they lead until she almost believes it is real. She feels that she has got to know them, so much so that when one of them disappears she cannot stop herself from becoming involved.

Rachel wishes to help, to uncover the truth, but what of her story can be believed? She is an alcoholic, dogged by memory blackouts and vivid dreams. She is an unreliable witness who cannot even be sure herself what she remembers.

The plot is compelling, multi layered and tightly written. Each of the characters adds intrigue leaving the reader guessing but never quite sure of where the tale will go next. As each character is forced to shed the blinkers they have chosen to wear and to face what has been happening around them the painful truths cause their lives to implode.

The imagery of the train is a constant throughout the book and works well. A journey, strangers, the unrelenting presence like the elephant in the room. I was impressed by the author’s careful unveiling, the pivotal secret and the chilling denouement.

This is an engrossing tale that will not disappoint. It may just cause a few more commuters to look out of train windows and imagine the lives that are being lived as they pass by.

Book Review: Twin Truths

10527877_4529445570269_7356425577031067870_n

Twin Truths, by Shelan Rodger, is a tale of abuse, betrayal and survival. Jenny and Pippa are twins, different in many ways but always there for each other. Their childhood has left them damaged and their personalities have been shaped by their divergent coping mechanisms. One withdraws into solitude, finding escape in academia and books. The other lashes out in anger, seeking danger and excitement, punishing those around in an attempt to manage the hurt that is always present but rarely acknowledged.

A plane crash sets in motion a spiral of events that force a confrontation between past, present and future. Travelling between Britain, South America and the Mediterranean, the truths about events that have shaped the twins’ lives are gradually revealed. There are many unexpected twists and turns as the story unfolds. The individual construction of memory is laid bare, a perception that is nigh impossible to fully share with family and friends, reliant as it is on the complex web of personal experience.

At a superficial level this is a well written, psychological thriller with a satisfyingly unexpected ending. At its heart though it is so much more. I enjoyed the unpicking of the human psyche, the difficulty in seeing ourselves as others see us, the way we see the world and those around, how we translate our experiences from the baseline of everything else that has happened in our past.

Other than the obvious mystery surrounding the twins history, the central aspect explored in this book is what makes a person who they are, what is truth. Such questions are prodded at gently but cogently as the tightly written and compelling story unfolds. The short chapters facilitate pauses for thought, but I did not want to put this book down. It is a page turner with depth, thought provoking story-telling at its best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cutting Edge Press, via a Goodreads ‘First Reads’ giveaway.