The Last Thing She Remembers
For the last ten years or so the psychological thriller market has revolved around troubled and/or troublesome characters. These unreliable narrators set the pace for our story, keeping the reader on an uneven footing, causing us to stumble in surprise or stagger in shock as we race to discover exactly what is going on. The Last Thing She Remembers attempts to add a different twist to that formula – with mixed results.
She arrives at the doorstep tired and confused. She can’t find the key to her house. Worse, when she looks in the window she sees there are people standing in her kitchen, cooking and laughing and behaving perfectly at home. She knocks on the door but the man who answers assures her this is most definitely not her abode. He and his wife own it, and have the deed to prove it. She passes out on the step.
The home owners, Laura and Tony, are beyond gracious. They bring her in and convince a friend who is a doctor to take a look at her. She spins a simple story: she has just arrived back from overseas and had only realized at the train station that her purse has been stolen, and along with it her identification and important electronics like her laptop and phone. She can’t remember her name or anything about herself except that her friend Fleur is dead – and this house. She knows it in detail; the layout of the upstairs bedrooms, the brick outbuilding at the bottom of the garden, the shower in the downstairs bathroom. The doctor finds nothing physically wrong to explain the amnesia but promises to look into it. Needing something to call her Tony decides on the name “Jemma”. And he and Laura invite her to spend the night, hoping a good sleep is all she needs to jog her memory.
The next day ‘Jemma’ (who hasn’t regained her memory), Tony and Laura receive a nasty surprise. The doctor’s research revealed that there really is a Jemma who once lived in this cute little bungalow in this charming Wiltshire village, Jemma Huish. That Jemma is infamous in their small community, which might explain why our mystery woman looked familiar to some of those who had seen her the night before. That Jemma murdered her best friend and went to prison. She’s out now and has disappeared off the grid, although the police are very interested in knowing where she is.
Much of the rest of the story circles around the simple question of determining whether our mystery women really is Jemma Huish. The issue is compounded by the fact that Jemma H’s police photo is blurry and her fingerprints have gone missing from the system. Jemma H’s DNA profile is available but our Jemma is reluctant to give anyone her DNA for testing. Tony backs her up on this point; he believes it’s dangerous to trust the police. As the days pass, with increasing police presence and pressure, it becomes clear that ‘Jemma’ isn’t the only one in the village who has a history they might want forgotten.
This story alternates focus on the characters from chapter to chapter, with each chapter concentrating on the activities of a single person. The author handles this deftly, making it very clear whom we are fixed upon and why. These vignettes should have provided readers with the opportunity to understand the dramatis personae and either sympathize or be horrified by them. That works in a few cases, such as Laura and her friend Luke, who are behaving in perfectly rational ways, but it doesn’t work with several of the others, such as Tony and ‘Jemma’, because they are acting so far outside the bounds of human norms that being with them only creates confusion. The fact that these scenes aren’t drawn in first person means that we don’t connect with the character’s feelings or inner workings; we’re just privy to a few of their disjointed thoughts and inexplicable behaviors, which was frustrating. I found myself spending a lot of time with people I cared nothing about who were acting in ways I just didn’t understand. This begins to clear up about 60% of the way through the book, when the author begins to let us know what’s actually happening but by that point, Mr. Monroe had lost the opportunity to truly reel me in. I was curious enough to find out how the tale was going to end but I wasn’t invested enough to lose even a few minutes of sleep for it. Where I normally have to force myself to set down what I am reading and go to bed, it was quite easy to set this on the night stand and wait till the next day to pick it up again.
The very things that made this book difficult to invest in – lack of character formation and the peculiar nature of the mystery in the first half – also make the novel difficult to discuss. The story simply doesn’t advance beyond its surface aspects for the bulk of the page-count. As far as characterization goes, our mystery woman doesn’t evolve from a frightened, fragile and odd creature till we are past the halfway point. Then she becomes just odd and a bit stupid. Tony’s peculiarities are often laid at the door of his being American, but being an American myself, I knew that wasn’t why he was acting so strangely. We don’t find out what’s partially motivating him until a little more than a third of the way through the story, or what’s really inspiring his actions till near the end of the narrative. Which brings me to pacing; things would, I think, have worked a bit better if they had moved a bit faster. Focused ‘Jemma’ and unraveling Tony were intriguing; had I met them sooner I might have been more entertained by their tale. I think the author put so much effort into surprising us with the ending that he forgot to keep us engaged at the start.
For those who can make it to the end, the story has a rather surprising, if a touch unbelievable, finish. As the author allows the secondary plot to shine through, our characters’ true selves begin to emerge and expand, and the pacing picks up with action that moves the tale briskly forward. The novel begins to really gel and starts to tell the story it had wanted us to read from the beginning. Had the whole been more like the second half, I think I would have given it a higher grade.
That said, given the lethargic, rather baffling start The Last Thing She Remembers receives a hesitant and limited recommendation from me. If you are a fan of slow build mysteries, someone who enjoys a very leisurely journey to a surprise finale, you might enjoy this book. If you prefer a story that grips you from the start and won’t let go, I would recommend trying one of the numerous other suspense novels that have received higher grades here.
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Note: This title was published in 2018 in the UK under the title Forget My Name.