This was the first book club reading that, I’m sorry to say, turned out to be a complete dud. I still finished it because the central mystery kept my interest, but it’s not a good sign when you start cringing a couple of pages in.
There is a potentially interesting if harrowing story at the heart of the novel. In a small USA town, a teenage girl called Jenny Kramer is brutally raped at a high school party. Her parents agree to an experimental treatment that erases Jenny’s memory of the event; in theory this should spare her from PTSD and allow her to return to normal life. But Jenny’s trauma finds its way out regardless, and she decides that she wants to recover her memory of the rape. The novel’s narrator, Dr. Forrester, is the psychiatrist who treats Jenny as well as her parents who deal with their own emotional fallout and deep-seated issues. There’s also the question of who committed this horrific crime.
The main problem with All Is Not Forgotten is the choice of the narrator. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a narrator who is unlikable or morally questionable, or even loathsome – some of my favourite fictional characters are people you wouldn’t want to know in real life. Dr. Forrester however is a not a deeply flawed, interesting character, but a flatly written, pompous and patronising bore. I got an impression that the writer was aiming for a kind of hyper-articulate, intensely self-aware protagonist you might find in a Lionel Shriver novel, but lacked the necessary skill. Some of Dr. Forrester’s narration is so clunky and pretentious I wondered how this even made past the editor. Because you only get to know the other characters through his perspective, Jenny and her parents, who could all have been compelling characters, can’t avoid the deadly Dr. Forrester filter.
Despite problems with writing, a mystery novel can still pull you in with the basic “I want to know who did it”, and at one point the plot thickens intriguingly when the identity of the rapist comes uncomfortably close to home for the narrator. However in the end the book falls flat on its face, because the writer thought that an unpredictable answer is the same as a satisfying one. It’s not a case of, wow I didn’t see it coming but more like um… this is all terribly contrived. Without spoiling anything, if you thought early into the book that it’s going to be about Jenny and her struggle to overcome a horrible thing done to her, nope it actually all revolves around Dr. Forrester. Also, the unreliable narrator device can work brilliantly in the right hands, but here it just makes you realise that you’ve just read a book you weren’t really enjoying essentially for nothing.
I wasn’t sure why exactly the book had an endorsement from Reese Witherspoon on the cover of all people, but then I read that her film production company might adapt the book. If it happens, it could be a rare case when the film version is a vast improvement on the original.