The Reminders by Val Emmich
Ten-year-old Joan Lennon Sully has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), a neurological condition. She can remember everything that happened to her in detail – this is biographical rather than photographic memory, she can’t ace exams but can tell you what she was wearing on any particular day for instance. Joan has a pragmatic approach to memory, but finds it hard to understand her Grandma’s Alzheimer’s.
There’s only enough room for the most important memories and the rest gets thrown away. When I’m the thing that gets thrown away, because I’m not important enough, it’s hard not to get the blues like John Lennon on the White Album when he sings, I’m lonely and I wanna die. Especially when I would never throw anyone else away, because my brain never runs out of room. I just want it to be fair. […]
Grandma Joan had to throw me out of her brainbox so she could have neough room for the lyrics to all her favorite songs. She remembered those until the day she died. (Saturday, October 8, 2011).
Joan is also a gifted young musician and shares a love of John Lennon with her composer father Ollie who, is having to contemplate closing his home music studio to get a regular job, her mum Paige has been carrying the family financially for some time.
Then Gavin comes back into their lives. Ollie had been in a band with Gavin at college, and Gavin’s partner, Sydney was a friend of Paige. Now an actor in a TV series, Gavin is struggling with grief after the death of Sydney, and after a breakdown in which he burned most of Sydney’s things left in their house in the garden in his underpants (the neighbour filmed it and it went viral), Paige suggests he comes to stay with them. So, Gavin forsakes California for New Jersey, hoping to leave his memories behind. He hadn’t reckoned on encountering Joan’s perfect recall of the times she met Sydney when he stayed with them when he had meetings in New York though.
Joan is obsessed with entering and winning a songwriting competition – she wants to be the girl everyone remembers, not the girl who can’t forget. “To win the contest I’ll need a song that can make people want to dance or cry. Those are the two strongest feelings music can give you.”
She enlists Gavin’s help to write lyrics; she also tells him about her experiences of Sydney and she quizzes him about the video:
“Why did you want to burn Sydney’s things?”
“Becase it’s too painful to remember.” […]
“Then why are you here now? Why are you talking to me?”
“Because it’s even more painful to forget.”
It transpires that Gavin didn’t know Sydney had been in New York some of these times… what was he doing? As the book goes on, Joan and Gavin’s separate quests make for a touching story, although Gavin’s does take the lead in the later stages of the novel.
The two protagonists form a close friendship which is lovely. To help her songwriting, Gavin takes Joan on a tour of places John Lennon went in New York and their bond gets stronger. But as Gavin discovers more about what Sydney had been doing on his secret trips to New York, it amplifies the grief again.
It was a breath of fresh air to read a novel in which the relationship between an adult and a child is nurturing and innocent for both. Joan at ten, was a delight. Having just this last week heard a radio interview with a young Australian woman with HSAM, who suffers terribly from depression because she can’t forget bad things, I can only hope that Emmich’s Joan would not grow up to suffer similarly.
Emmich, a singer-songwriter and actor who is new to me on all fronts, proves he can also write with this lovely debut novel. I shall look forward to his next one. (9/10)
P.S. As I read this book, I was reminded of Rebecca’s recent post on thematic overlaps in reading. That’s two books within a month featuring John Lennon for me! (See my review of Beatlebone by Kevin Barry here).
Source: Publisher’s ARC. Thank you.
Val Emmich, The Reminders, Picador, August 2017. Hardback, 224 pages.
7 thoughts on “Unforgettable”
I heard that interview, too. The condition sounded appalling, particularly as the woman experienced her memories as if she was the age when they occurred. The Reminders sounds like a more positive take on it and as someone who’s recently read My Absolute Darling perhaps one I should read as an antidote.
It was uplifting, even if things don’t quite pan out the way you think they might at the beginning. My Absolute Darling is waiting for me … looking forward to it, in a way!
This reminded me of a Borges story, ‘Funes the Memorious’, which I read many years ago but still recall being struck by. This sounds more engaging than the Borges which I liked but felt a bit distanced from.
I’ve never read Borges – but do own a copy of Labyrinths – one day…
There are times when I wish my terrible memory was a bit better; however, having read this, I don’t think I’d like one that is quite this good…. :s
It certainly has disadvantages over ‘traditional’ photographic or eidetic memory, but this was a lovely book.