I have always been fascinated by human memory – its capacity, its sharpness, its connection to emotions and our basic senses. Somehow the drop of gray grime in my head manages to remind everything from the fraud statute I memorized in law school to the lyrics of virtually every new wave singles released in years. 1980. That’s why a whiff of Ralph Lauren Polo cologne brings me back to a gropey nightmare in the cab of a pickup truck with the high school quarterback.
But despite the remarkable breadth and depth of memory, we also know that it is fallible. Brittle. Even manipulable. Cognitive research has proven, for example, that eyewitness memory is much more secure and much less accurate than we instinctively think. If we can’t believe our own memories, how can we trust ourselves? Memory is also reversible, and what we forget is often as revealing as what we remember.
In my new book, The Girl She Was (titled Find Me in the US), Hope Miller lost not only some of her memories, but all of them after being found thrown from an overturned SUV. Doctors initially believed that she would regain her memories in a matter of days or weeks, but 15 years later, she made her way in the small town where she was found, under any name of her choice. But what if the foundation on which his new life was built was a fraud? When Hope suddenly disappears, the search for her involves a hunt for memories she may have been running from.
Failing memory provides endless stories, both fictional and factual, classic and new. Here are some of my favorites.
1. Before going to sleep by SJ Watson
It’s no surprise that Watson’s first thriller took the book world by storm when it was released in 2011. We all covet sleep, but what if every time you slept your memory faded? Christine is in this unenviable position. Worse yet, the person she relies on to reorient her daily routine might not be trustworthy.
2. Under my skin by Lisa Unger
A year after the unsolved murder of her husband Jack, a grieving Poppy plays with a serious cocktail of sleep deprivation, pills and alcohol abuse. Between nightmares and blackouts, she cannot remember entire blocks of time, and what she can remember may be real or entirely imaginary. As she gets closer to the truth about her husband, her grip on reality grows more and more tenuous, and now there is a stranger lingering on the periphery of her life. Where is there?
3. What Alice forgot about Liane Moriarty
From what Alice Love remembers, she is not yet 30, married to the love of her life, expecting her first child … until she wakes up on the floor of a gym and lands at the hospital to learn that she is 39 years old. mother of three on the verge of divorce. As she tries to rebuild her life over the past decade, she wonders if amnesia might not just be a blessing in disguise.
4. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Do you remember the character of Guy Pearce in the movie Memento, who woke up every day unable to form new memories? Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks has also proven to be a gifted storyteller in this collection which explores this neurological condition (called anterograde amnesia) and others. Sacks presents patient case stories with extraordinary compassion.
5. The Meaning of an End by Julian Barnes
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Barnes’ acclaimed novel examines how memories dictate our perception of our place in the world and what happens when we forget something intrinsic to it. If you don’t think about your past often, you will after reading this gripping tale.
6. Yesterday by Felicia Yap
Imagine an alternate reality in which social distinctions are not made by wealth, race, or class, but by the ability to remember. In Felicia Yap’s inventive beginnings, the masses are the “monos” who only retain memories for a day; elite “duos” can choose two; and all should trust their written journals, which may or may not be accurate. When a woman is murdered, how can you determine the truth when memories are constantly erased and altered?
7. The flight attendant by Chris Bohjalian
Memory loss resulting from black drunkenness leaves Cassandra Bowden flying without a proverbial net when she wakes up in a hotel room in Dubai next to a dead man, not knowing if she killed him. What should a professional single woman do? Lying to colleagues and the FBI may not be the best choice. But after doing that, finding out who the murderer is might be his only way out.
8. Into the woods by Tana French
Childhood trauma is hard to overcome, and neither is the murder of a childhood friend. This is what Detective Garda Rob Ryan faces when a child is found murdered in the same woods where he survived a vicious attack he has few memories of. Can Ryan rely on his fragments of memories to solve the current case and that of his childhood?
9. Petina Gappah’s Memory Book
“Memory” plays a double role here. Memory is the name of the narrator of the novel, an albino woman writing her story from a maximum security prison in Zimbabwe where she is being held for the murder of a white man. As Memory struggles to recount the events that brought her to a jail cell, she must sort through a tangle of sometimes hazy memories of her complicated past.
10. Final words from Michael Koryta
It’s not often that a suspect in an unsolved murder is the one asking for an unsolved case to be reopened. Ten years ago, Sarah Martin vanished into an elaborate, uncharted cave system in a small town in southern Indiana. Days later, Ridley Barnes emerged from the caves carrying the teenager’s lifeless body. Barnes was the natural suspect, but insisted he had no recollection of how or where he found Sarah, or even whether she was dead or alive. Now he’s the one who asks private investigator Mark Novak to take a second look and help him find out if he’s a murderer.
The Girl She Was by Alafair Burke is published by Faber. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from the Guardian Bookstore. Delivery charges may apply.