In remembrance of things present
‘ FORGETTING,’’ the great Indian writer R. K. Narayan said, ‘‘ is a boon to be cherished.’’ Any of us kept up at night by the regrets or resentments that pile up in any half-examined life might agree.
These two debut novels by young writers, one English, one American, have a memory loss at their core.
While this may seem an odd coincidence, perhaps amnesia is a metaphor for our age of too much information, in which every teenage indiscretion or ill-considered tweet is recorded for eternity, yet where everything seems provisional, scattered, fragmented, subjective.
Any novel that examines amnesia asks big questions. Who are we? Are we who are because of what we remember we did or what we do? How do we negotiate or navigate a place in a continuously moving world without the anchor of the past? And how reliable is the past, even when we can remember? After all, isn’t the greatest fiction often autobiography?
Before I Go To Sleep is the immensely engaging debut novel of London-based S. J. Watson, who wrote it as a student of Britain’s feted Faber Academy, which has recently opened an Australian branch in partnership with Allen & Unwin.
Christine wakes in an unfamiliar room to see an old woman staring back at her from the mirror. The man who says he’s her husband Ben reminds her that she suffered a terrible accident in her 20s and can remember only the present day. When she goes to sleep, she forgets everything, and wakes every morning needing to rediscover where she is, who she is, why she is the way she is.
She’s as vulnerable as a child: how can she believe anything or trust anyone?
This confusion is exacerbated when she receives a phone call from a Dr Nash, who tells her she has been keeping a hidden journal, trying to recover what memories she can, such as of the son she doesn’t know she had or the novel she wrote that Ben has never mentioned. The first entry warns her not to trust Ben.
So begins an unsettling excavation of her uncertain past. She’s struck by mental images of her son, of Ben, of a woman at a party, but she cannot be sure if these are dreams or memories. Does Ben hide aspects of her past for her own good? Or is there something more sinister at play?
Cat Patrick’s young adult novel Forgotten is as exuberant and restless as its protagonist, London, who also can remember only the present day. However, London also can ‘‘ remember’’ the future, which she uses as to guide her for the day ahead, as well as keeping a journal of the day that has passed.
Like Christine, London’s affected by a troubling memory, though unlike her other future memories she cannot tell when it will happen. Nor can she see her ‘‘ hot’’ love interest, Luke, in her future.
As she grapples with the slings and arrows of adolescence and the mysteries of her converging past and future, she discovers more than she, or the reader, could have expected.
Both these books have problems, teetering on the edge of their conceits. Every morning is a repetition of the ones before, making you wish they would just cut to the chase. When each does, towards the end, the pace and tension ramp up to gripping levels, even if their denouements seem a little too neatly and tritely resolved.
But most irritating is the use of the present tense. English novelists Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher recently started a discussion on the popularity of the present tense, with Pullman decrying ‘‘ its claustrophic and limited range of expressiveness’’ and Hensher blaming it on creative writing courses and film treatments (films of each of these novels are in the works).
I have to agree. While the present tense is an interesting device for a short story, through the course of a novel it can become tiring, like trying to focus on a jittery handheld camera.
In Before I Go to Sleep and Forgotten, the lack of either protagonist’s past makes it necessary, but in each the most effective and involving passages are those written in the past tense.
Of the two, Watson is the stronger writer. The contrast between Christine’s mundane suburban existence and the disquieting fragments of her past give him opportunities to transcend the limitations of the novel’s concept and reveal moments of real literary talent.
Although Forgotten’s profusion of multiexclamatory ejaculations (!!!) and one. word. paragraphs. may reflect the twittery inflexions of Patrick’s target audience, I don’t remember Holden Caulfield, for all his callowness and confusion, being as exhausting to read, even when returning to The Catcher in the Rye in adulthood.
However, given how likable the plucky and intelligent London is, and how well Patrick evokes the many incandescent passions of teenagehood, one would assume, given the popularity of the Twilight series and its countless imitators, that any lack of literary merit or plausibility won’t deter its intended audience. And one should be perhaps grateful it does not feature vampires, werewolves or zombies. Sunil Badami is a short-story writer and essayist who is working on his first novel.