Speak, Memory: 10 Books on Remembering & Forgetting

In my novel Monkey See, millions of people are affected by a disease known as RONDS: Rapid Onset Neural Degeneration Syndrome, which has similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s disease but progresses in a matter of a few months. Recently I have been doing tonnes of research about how memories are formed and processed and retrieved; how they are lost or misplaced. I find anything to do with the workings of the brain fascinating and this research was no exception. It inspired this top 10 of novels and memoirs which explore dementia, collective memory, amnesia, and the relationship between memory and trauma.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

The heartbreaking story of a highly successful linguistics professor whose life is devastated by a diagnosis of early-onset dementia. Get the tissues out!

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The story of an elderly woman descending into dementia, and struggling frantically to recall some vital information about a friend she believes has disappeared.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Best known for The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s books are always surprising and daring and this is no exception. Set in post-Arthurian England, it explores the idea of cultural forgetting: is it desirable or even possible for a society consciously ‘forget’ the horrors of the past? I think this is such an important question and I love the way this book handles it through a tale of old love and misty adventure.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

One of my favourite reads of the last few years, a group of scientists go to explore a landscape riddled with strange phenomena, known as Area X. They return, but are not quite themselves, and have only the haziest memories of what took place on the expedition. Creepy!

Fractured by Dawn Barker

New mother Anna is struggling to cope. One day she comes home without her infant son, and with no recollection of where she has been or what might have happened. A riveting fictional exploration of post-natal psychosis.

Memory Palace by Hari Kunzru

A dark vision of a future in which not just books but remembering itself is banned. A small group of renegade memorialists try to preserve their knowledge using the ‘memory palace’ technique.

How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

Marta has always been a good wife. Until she becomes troubled by disturbing visions. Is her mind playing tricks on her? Or is she starting to remember something long repressed? A twisty thriller exploring memory, trauma and identity.

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball

This strange and fascinating story is set in a world in which people who are so depressed they can’t bear the thought of staying alive are offered a chance to begin again. Their memories are wiped, and they relearn the world and form a new identity. But is this really possible?

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first book in KOK’s five-volume autobiography, this memoir recounts in extraordinary detail Knausgaard’s troubled relationship with his difficult father, focusing especially on his childhood and teenage years. Though there were parts I found wonderful, there were also parts I found dull, and I would say, overall, not quite worthy of the hype, but I certainly admired the feats of his memory.

Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska

One of my favourite Australian books of all time, this is a daughter’s memories of hr childhood against the backdrop of her mother’s post-natal depression. It’s a beautiful meditation on the nature of memory and on the mother-daughter bond.

Your turn: What are your favourite books about memory?

13 thoughts on “Speak, Memory: 10 Books on Remembering & Forgetting”

  1. Hi Annabel! One of my favourite books from last year was Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, which is also about mass memory loss (and music). I’d highly recommend it. Another of my favourite books about memory is Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest. Good luck with Monkey See – I’m really looking forward to reading it!

    1. Hi Michelle, lovely to hear from you. I saw people tweeting about The Chimes from Adelaide Writers Week. I’ve added it to my reading list. Thank you.

  2. They look like great books, Annabel. I can’t remember if I’ve read a novel featuring memory loss or not. But if not, this post will fix that!

  3. Looks like some good reads on your list. I have read and enjoyed Elizabeth is Missing and have the Knausguaard and Modjeska on my shelve and the Genova on my bedside table. I hadn’t heard amything about Poppy, I had just picked it up on the strength of the author’s other books so I’m really looking forward to it now. I can recommend The Machine by James Smythe in which a soldier’s memory is wiped and I am currently reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara in which the protagonist tries to repress his childhood memories of abuse (not for the faint hearted). I can second the suggestion of The Night Guest.

    1. Poppy is my favourite of Modjeska’s books, so if you’re a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I really want to read A Little Life, but, as you acknowledge, I keep putting it off because of the difficult subject matter. But it is so important for these stories to be told, isn’t it?

      1. It is and it is up to us as readers to decide what we can handle. I’m glad I read it.

  4. Hi Annabel, I have read, Still Alice, Elizabeth is Missing and Fractured, loved them all. I heard Jesse Ball being interviewed on ABC last week, for his novel How to set a fire and why, am looking forward to reading that one from the library. I have found myself now in love with, after telling you that it didn’t grab me, Wild Light by Robyn Mundy, now I don’t want to put it down.

    1. So pleased to hear you changed your mind about Wildlight; I thought it was a very special book. I’ll have to look up that ABC interview because I’m a big fan of Jesse Ball, though am yet to read his latest book.

  5. It was weird to read this post. I’ve been doing heaps of memory reading too for my Master’s project so it’s exactly like the inside of my brain! My focus is different from yours though, I’m working on the idea of remembering the dead. Books I’m finding useful: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, anything by Virginia Woolf (particularly Mrs Dalloway & To The Lighthouse but also her diaries).

    The list of things I need to read just keeps growing – I’m adding some of yours to it.

    1. Fugitive Pieces and Beloved are two incredible books. Have you read Anne Michaels’ poetry? Also wonderful. What is your Masters project – it sounds interesting.

  6. Oh dear, I haven’t read any of those, though I’ve heard of a few of them! I’m sure I’ve read a few on this topic but the one that immediately popped to mind is Thea Astley’s Coda. It starts, “I’m losing my nouns”. It’s a great book about the desire for dignity and respect.

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