Not forgettable - but not easy to review either
A few months have passed since I finished reading Marius Brill’s How to Forget. Don’t worry – I didn’t ‘forget’ to write the review, though that would have been a great excuse, wouldn’t it? I just struggled to know where to start trying to describe such a complex story. This is not a book into which you should dip in and out and I will admit that I made a couple of false starts before I finally got into the story. Then once I had the wind in my sails, I rather enjoyed it. But it’s fair to say that the word ‘unconventional’ could be applied to this novel.
The story-telling approach is unusual and we are kicked off with an introduction to the mystery of a missing doctor – a controversial memory specialist by the name of Dr Chris Tavasligh. Tavasligh has some rather unsavoury theories about the treatment of the elderly and those with dementia which lead the readers to ask themselves some uncomfortable questions, particularly “Which is worse, the loss of your memory or the process of losing it?” It’s thought provoking stuff especially if you've ever seen a loved one degenerate under a disease such as Alzheimers. Throughout the book we are exposed to snippets of Tavasligh’s theories, sections of the doctor’s notebooks, and access to the design of some of the experiments carried out. However, despite these parts being the skeleton on which the story is hung, I couldn’t help but think that removing the whole darned lot wouldn’t actually have damaged the story very much.
Too clever by half?
Marius Brill is clearly a very clever chap and How to Forget displays that very well. At times the poor reader could be forgiven for confusing ‘clever’ with ‘smug’ but most of the time we’re working so hard just trying to follow what’s going on and trying to work out what this book is trying to be. Is it a love story? It might be. Is it a mystery or suspense thriller? Sometimes that might also be true. It is complex, sometimes quite hard to follow, and when I got to the end I had the sense of reaching the end of a major endeavour as well as the satisfaction of reaching a point where the previous 390 pages kind of knitted together and made sense.
The tricks of the mind
We have characters who have forgotten and characters who want to forget; people who have played so many roles that they barely recall who they really are and others who know exactly who and what they are but don’t plan on letting anyone else in on their secrets. In addition to the mysterious doctor we have an elderly but once great magician living out his final years in a care home, a middle-aged magician hiding away from the art he loves after a rather unfortunate incident at a children’s birthday party, a once-beautiful con-artist who fears the fading of her looks and final big scam, a professional stage ‘medium’ who knows rather too much about the recently deceased, and his evil investigators who are a pair of cartoon-like Hassidic Jews who seem unlikely to be the ideal undercover men. And then there’s an overweight FBI man determined to catch the woman who has run rings around him for decades.
Peter is the younger magician, known also by his stage name of ‘Magicov the Magnificent’ though there’s not so much magnificence to be found doing card tricks in the old people’s home. He wants to forget the incident that got him his unjustified listing on the sex offenders register almost as much as he wants to forget Kate, the woman who broke his heart. Meanwhile Kate is bouncing around the world evading her FBI nemesis who will not let himself retire until he catches the one that got away. She’s posing as an Hispanic maid in the USA in one chapter and then popping up a few chapters later to try to steal the farm and inheritance of a young naive farmer. Meanwhile the boy who destroyed Peter’s life had grown up to become Titus the medium and has developed extraordinary ways to astonish his audience. After all if you can go through the list of ticket holders for your up-coming show and find one with an elderly relative who might feasibly die just after revealing all their secrets to you, that’s going to make for an amazing stage show. Killing relatives in order to provide audience satisfaction is at least guaranteed to ensure authenticity.
The characters buzz around, orbiting each others lives until the whole lot end up intertwined just in time for an astonishing ending. It is – as I mentioned earlier – clever stuff. The problem – if there is one – is that the characters are mostly so unlikeable (though I would exclude the lovely Peter from that statement) that it’s hard to know what to believe and what to reject. Do we actually want Peter to 'get the girl' when she's such a dodgy cheating no-good? Would he be much better off without her? Undoubtedly that’s what Brill wants us to feel and he does it really well. But how can we as readers relax if we’re never offered any kind of certainty to hang onto?
I found the book complex, puzzling and eventually rather satisfying – but the satisfaction was the type that comes from solving a cryptic crossword or an ultra-hard Sudoko. I was satisfied and I had been challenged by the book but I cannot really say that I really ‘enjoyed’ it. One thing is for sure though – it was far from forgettable.
How to Forget, Marius Brill
Published by Doubleday
An earlier version of this review appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk. Thanks to CBF and the publishers for my review copy