Two books among my recent reads employ unusual premises around the concept of memory to develop plotlines and consequently some fascinating characters.
Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a psychological science fiction, though some might consider it magical realism, with elements of social satire woven in. The main character, Hope, is forgotten within minutes by anyone she’s in physical contact with as if that person had never met her before. No, she’s not a middle-aged woman. In fact, she is an attractive twentysomething and uses her condition, a person who can be filmed on CCTV but not remembered or identified by anyone, to become a master jewel thief. She is helped by contact with an underworld of thieves in the deep web, where her avatar and handles are remembered – that is, she has a digital footprint.
While it’s fun to read how Hope can get away with theft and escape police stations and other scrapes as soon as someone leaves the room for a few minutes, a serious side lurks. Forming relationships is nearly impossible and only happen when the other person is aware of this memory cloud and can write notes to themselves, a complicated and difficult process. Hope reminds us how life without relationships can be lonely and agonising.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel by Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa that uses memory in a more conventional and believable way but with a twist. Following a car accident, a maths professor suffers from some sort of anterograde amnesia, an inability to form new memories. In the professor’s case, he can only remember what has transpired within the last 80 minutes and his long-term memory only contains his life before his accident of some twenty years ago from when the story begins with the arrival of a new housekeeper. Of course, every day is experienced as if the ‘new’ housekeeper has arrived. Aided by notes pinned to his clothes, he pretends he knows her, and they cultivate a friendship of sorts. With the appearance of housekeeper’s young son afterschool, this threesome manages to communicate and grow around their passions for mathematics and baseball.
In both books the heroines make use of these quirks of memory. As she is easily forgotten, Hope can attend taster sessions time and time again, becoming an expert in martial arts and having an enviable command of several languages. The housekeeper, who had limited schooling, learns maths without embarrassment by repetition from the professor who teaches her each time as if the first time.
Neither book employs the worn tropes of traumatic memories, childhood memories that come back to haunt, or even memories of the future caused by time travelling. Playing with the concept of memory in these peculiar ways, North and Ogawa flex their readers’ imaginations and remind us that there are other ways of thinking about the faculty of memory and what it means to be human.