The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

I thank the Publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Harper Voyager

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 Hardcover

In the middle of a market in India a man’s shadow disappears. As rolling twenty-four-hour news coverage tries to explain the event, more cases are discovered. The phenomenon spreads like a plague as people learn the true cost of their lost part: their memories.

Two years later, Ory and his wife Max have escaped ‘the Forgetting’ by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the in Virginia. They have settled into their new reality, until Max, too loses her shadow.

Knowing the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to the person most precious to her, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up what little time they have left before she loves her memory completely, and desperately follows her trail.

On their separate journeys, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a mysterious new force growing in the south that may hold the cure. But neither could have guessed at what you gain when you lose your shadow; the power of magic.

I am fascinated by memory and identity. How does the brain create moving images in our heads better than Blu-ray; how do witnesses at the same event see different things and how we perceive each other.  I think how books create false memories in the form of stories is yet another reason I love the power of books. In this intriguing debut Peng Shepherd provides a very unusual apocalypse where humanity isn’t being destroyed by climate change, disease or war but a loss of self.

With the arrival of a deer with feathers in its antlers you are immediately made aware that this is not your usual end of the world tale. This a world where people first lose their shadow and then their memories fade; your loved ones; your place names; understanding of objects etc. but the more people forget then has unseen consequences. The street and all the people you remembered living on it may vanish; a gun may fire thunderstorms and you could imagine away the doors to the room you are in and eventually you will forget to even eat and breathe. Into this we focus on Ory and Max a young couple who have lived through the initial event and ever since tried to survive hiding in the country with only Ory scavenging within the dwindling remnants of the older world and constantly evading the shadowless and the shadowed – neither of whom can be trusted to be benevolent towards strangers. Its an eerie uncertain world where even reality is questionable – how do you know your loved one is still the person you want them to be?

Max runs away once she finally succumbs to the forgetting and Ory pursues her and in doing so finally seeing what is left of the US.  Alongside this we also track Mahnaz a Iranian immigrant training for the Olympics as an archer who far away from home is in the middle of the fall of cities and the more mysterious The One Who Gathers -  a man who survived a car accident but lost all his memories – he is of scientific interest to doctors trying to understand the forgetting but he may have a bigger role in the future of this world. This then leads to weaving plotline involving flash forwards and flashbacks for all these characters who in a variety of ways all start to orbit each other and a in doing so chance to explore this very strange eerie world’s creation as well as the fates of the remaining people living in it. One of the welcome aspects is this is not a story of just straight white men saving the world with a much more diverse cast of characters and nationalities we are usually exposed to in these stories – it even looks beyond the US towards India and Iran to remind us this is an actual global event and not simply New York or Washington.

The major plus is Peng’s use of language to paint this picture.  She has a gorgeous use of prose and each scene is crafted and adds to the sense of rather than an adventure but a more surreal and often disturbing new world. This can be the sinister shadowless hording books to trade for items they no longer remember; mysterious white-suited figures that haunt the waterways and roads and finally in one of the most heart-breaking scenes the descent of a character into losing all their memories. Shepherd is also highlighting how circumstances may change how characters are perceived both by themselves or others. Ory for example is initially a standard loving partner but at several points we see a harder more reckless side to him and how characters are named or viewed through other’s eyes is a returning theme. If you’re seeking a more standard dystopia focused on how people technically survive you will not get much realism the focus is more on how [people react to huge changes and as the book progresses and the shadowless get more powerful the surrealness of events gets stronger and stronger building to a fantastic conclusion explaining the title of the story.

My one issue is the first half of the book as Ory and Max go on their respective quests is very fast paced but around halfway for a quarter of the book the cast must make several key changes in order for them all to meet in the conclusion. Unfortunately, this felt less natural and more obvious plot engineering – one character disappears with a family member and the events of their next few months are just explained in a few sentences. This was one of the rarer times when I would prefer a little more time with the cast to make the journey feel more epic and not rush to the finish.

If you enjoy the more literary side of an apocalypse with tales such as Station Eleven, then I think this would be a very suitable read.  While Station Eleven was however the book of hope and optimism this book is more shadowy and less certain as to the survival of humanity which suits a tale on the loss of identity.  It’s a strong debut and I will be looking forward to seeing how Shepherd further develops her voice and ideas.  Weirdly despite the subject matter a book you’ll really remember long after you finish it.