The Best Books About Unreliable Memories (That I Can Recall)
A few years ago, I attended an event run by an ex-detective-turned-author. He asked for two volunteers, people who had come to the event together, so my mom and I went up. We know each other well, of course, and we’d spent the whole day together, but when he asked us to stand back to back and accurately describe what the other was wearing, we failed miserably. “You didn’t even mention my lovely necklace,” my mum said, and she was right. I hadn’t!
When I came up with the idea for Close To Me, I was fascinated by the function of memory, not only the kind of direct and sudden loss Jo experiences after she falls down the stairs—a whole year of her life wiped clean—but also the way our recollections change as we reinterpret events over time. Sometimes this process is intentional, but often it happens subconsciously, our perspective altered.
It’s an endlessly intriguing theme and one that is used in many wonderful books. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
Elizabeth Is Missing, by Emma Healey
Maud is an unlikely heroine, a woman battling her declining memory as she succumbs to dementia, but it’s hard not to fall instantly in love with her, quirks and all. The central question of Elizabeth’s whereabouts is not the only mystery Maud is determined to solve, the frustrations of her confused thoughts never deterring her from her mission. Maud leads us through a poignant and thrilling tale of lost people and lost memories.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
When a letter arrives, Tony Webster is forced to revisit his memories of the past, not only the pivotal events that took place, but also his interpretation of them. This beautifully formed tale takes us back to many decades before, a diary providing documentary evidence of Tony’s unreliable recollections. Often philosophical, this is a short novel that packs a mighty punch, asking not only Tony, but also the reader, to honestly assess our actions and decisions and see them for what they truly were, not how we would like them to be.
The Widow, by Fiona Barton
Jean Taylor says she doesn’t know what happened to the little girl who went missing, and she’s certain her late husband had nothing to do with it, but is she telling the truth? As Kate Waters, journalist, gains Jean’s trust, the widow begins to share. Playing with the concept of selective memory, Fiona Barton skillfully unpicks the darker side of marriage, but is Jean a victim herself, or simply naïve, or perhaps . . . complicit in a heinous crime?
Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller
Idyllic childhood or living nightmare? When Peggy Hillcoat, eight, is taken on an adventure by her survivalist father, it’s up to Peggy and the reader to work out how much is truth and how much is invention. It’s only at the end of the book when Peggy, now adult, looks back on that time, that her true memory of what happened is revealed. Gorgeous prose and stunning observations on nature weave a magical tale from the cabin in the woods.
The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon
The residents of The Avenue all appear to have differing memories of a terrible event in their shared history. As Tilly and Grace investigate, their childish honesty scrapes away at the prejudices and values of 1970s suburbia. Set in the long hot summer of 1976, this gripping novel by Joanna Cannon evokes that period authentically while touching on very modern issues. Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance is the catalyst for a unique mystery that asks us to think more deeply about ourselves as well as others.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I’m sure you will have heard of this breakout debut psychological suspense thriller. It’s a book to devour, the pace rattling along as fast as the train. The flawed protagonist is Rachel, hampered by blackouts caused by her excessive drinking. An amnesiac alcoholic isn’t the most reliable witness, but she’s seen something and she’s not going to let it go. A terrific, mind-bending, thought-provoking read that shows memories are always there; we just need to find a way to unlock them.
Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughan
What do privilege and money buy you? A good education, a stunning wife, and the right to sleep around—at least that’s what Sophie’s husband, James, seems to think. Sophie’s life is consumed by scandal when James, a prominent MP and close friend of the prime minster, is accused of a terrible crime. She must learn to be honest about their relationship, going back to the start, to a memory she has long held secret. But James’s interpretation of this pivotal event may be very different from hers.
As every good book should, I hope my choices will make you think not only about how the characters cope, but also, given the same set of circumstances, what you, the reader, might do.