My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 496 pages
Release date: 5 June 2018
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 woods in Virgina. 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 loses 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.
A breathtakingly imaginative, timeless story that explores fundamental questions about memory and love—the price of forgetting, the power of connection, and what it means to be human when your world is turned upside down.
“The city would have glimmered, charred onyx overlaid with diamond, if not for the dark gray clouds that trapped all light.
He was a tourist at the end of the world.”
With apocalyptic fiction, it’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of survival, of fighting whatever menace is plaguing the planet. There’s a certain escapism in killing zombies or running from climate catastrophes. That high-octane brand of adventure serves many novels well. It’s more rare we get a novel that just explores the in-between moments and lives within the tragedy without conquering it, but that’s what Peng Shepherd has pulled off in her wonderful debut. In The Book of M, no amount of government funding, scientific genius or combat prowess can alleviate the simple human quality turned inevitable apocalypse: Forgetting.
In brief, this is an incredible novel. Weaving enough fast-paced twists to satisfy our escapist urges with insightful considerations of what it means to live in a disintegrating world, The Book of M juggles multiple storylines with different chronologies without ever becoming confusing. It raises just the right number of questions to keep you on your toes but not frustrated–What causes the shadowless to lose their shadows? Is there a cure for shadowlessness? Who is the eponymous M, and what is the book the title refers to? Not all of these questions are answered. Leaving on a hopeful note, Shepherd’s satisfyingly open ending provides sufficient closure for ease of mind but still leaves much to the imagination.
The loss of shadows and, subsequently, memory is a quietly brilliant premise that befits the best of speculative fiction. Captivating and imaginative, it suggests at every turn without explicitly asking us what we would do in such a world. An answer is perhaps provided in the form of central characters Orlando Zhang, or Ory, and his wife Max. Ory is an everyman audience surrogate sort of character; his need to be universally sympathetic means that on some level, he has slightly less depth than expected for a lead. Similarly, Max feels stringently defined by her role as the wife Ory loves. Little is revealed about her life before the Forgetting, and the slow loss of her memories would feel more poignant if her personality had received greater development.
However, Naz and the amnesiac, whose true name remains one of the novel’s big mysteries, make up for Ory and Max’s vague backstories. Both have intriguing stories that benefit from spanning longer timelines that begin before the Forgetting. From the hectic streets of Pune to a Heathrow Airport gripped by terror as the world falls apart, we see the full scope of the apocalypse through their eyes. By combining all four arcs, Shepherd ambitiously shows both the large scale, worldwide catastrophe of the Forgetting and the small scale, intimate human story of a couple whose love is redefined amidst tragedy.
Beyond characters, who are drawn from distinctly diverse backgrounds, The Book of M‘s world building is sublime. The shadowless’s powers to warp reality result in macabre, beautiful creations of the subconscious that too often turn deadly when someone is no longer able to differentiate between fear and reality. What manifests is a world straight out of Inception–a nightmare version of Inception. When a shadowless forgets that the Statue of Liberty isn’t an automaton hell-bent on exterminating humans, New York City is decimated. Such is the strange and horrifying future that this book vividly explores, from Boston to New Orleans and everywhere in between.
Yet for all the fantastical elements, The Book of M hits achingly close to home. No fantasy, no science fiction is needed to fuel the fear of forgetting. Alzheimer’s may not bring about apocalyptic reality warping, but the terror of witnessing a loved one slowly slip away is no less potent. Ironically, it’s when Shepherd addresses the heartbreak of forgetting that her writing feels most lucid–whether it’s love, loss or hope, few things are the same when characters don’t know what they’re missing anymore.
The Book of M is a thought-provoking premise addressed with powerful insights, and will stay with me for quite a while. I wholeheartedly look forward to whatever Peng Shepherd writes next.
*Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins UK for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*