What are we without our memories? If you forget all your favorite things, if you can't remember yesterday, if you must rely on other people's interpretation of past events—where is the truth of who you are now? Joanna Luloff examines the connection of memory to self in her debut novel Remind Me Again What Happened.
I discovered Joanna Luloff in the Bennington Review. Her brilliant short story “The Body” is told from the perspective of a dying man's body. While the mind inside is agile, the body denies communication. Luloff's novel Remind Me Again What Happened also explores a person struggling with illness, but the situation is reversed. No, this is not a book about Alzheimer's, although Luloff spoke openly with her mother about memory loss when starting the book. Her mother said it was strange to borrow other people's memories.
The novel's main character, Claire, is forced to do exactly that. Claire is a journalist and while on assignment in India, she contracts the rare disease Japanese encephalitis from a mosquito bite. Most people have a mild reaction to the virus, but Claire is in the thirty percent that experience seizures and severe memory loss. She now relies on her husband, Charlie, and best friend, Rachel, to remind her about her past from grad school to what happened yesterday, because “There is a smudge where my memories are supposed to be.”
Luloff writes with candor and empathy about the frustration and exhaustion of dealing with life-changing illness. Her honesty and poetic descriptions are so vivid, it's as if Luloff lost her memory, then regained it, enabling her to write with such uncanny perception. When Claire wakes up in a hospital bed missing half her life, she reflects “every time I approached something like a memory, it got blotted out by a sudden shadow. It's the same kind of sensation that comes after you stare at the sun too long, and then you look away, a trailing splotch of undefined color interrupts your vision. You can sense the many things that surround what you are looking at, but the closer you get to the thing itself, the blinder you become.”
Claire cannot remember that she and Charlie are estranged or that Rachel once did something on Claire's advice that changed the course of all three of their lives. The narrative rotates between Claire, Charlie, and Rachel, allowing each character to speak the truth as they understand it. Memories morph over time, even for people not afflicted by illness-related memory loss. Events are thus described through three lenses, with three different interpretations. This structure allows for in-depth, insightful character studies of the trio, who have a long history of miscommunication and secrets in addition to great love for each other.
Claire was the leader of their group, the strong one, and the other two struggle to nurse Claire while protecting themselves from past hurts. Both feel resentment toward Claire, the carefree one who always did as she pleased, pulling the others into her shiny orbit. Now, there is an almost childlike quality to Claire and they are impatient with her process. Not surprising for a free-spirited adventurer, Claire makes a lousy patient. She resents having babysitters, while also acknowledging the toll that caring for her takes on the two people closest to her. Claire makes a radical choice in the hopes of finding herself and releasing Charlie and Rachel from their caregiving responsibilities.
Both Rachel and Charlie suspect that Claire is pretending to have forgotten certain events, that she is testing them. Claire worries that they are withholding information from her. All of them mask this distrust with exuberant displays when Claire remembers a “safe” memory, but tension builds underneath. Claire laments that “It's no fun keeping secrets when you have no idea you're doing it. My brain is a maze of secrets, I'm sure of it, but I don't get to pick and choose what to reveal anymore. I don't even get the pleasure of knowing them.”
Charlie and Rachel want Claire to not only remember her past, but to explain her past actions, as if recovering her memories will result in a satisfactory account. Rather than a recovery to the “old Claire,” they want a Claire who will placate their fears and self-doubts with reasons for her choices. Charlie longs to know the truth about why Claire left him. But if she couldn't communicate that to him at the time, how will recovering the memory make his pain any more bearable?
The exploration of what defines a person, the cost of long-term illness on both patient and their family, and how secrets can fester and destroy, all add up to an absorbing and thought-provoking read. The narrative poses more questions than it answers, but the journey is well worth taking with Joanna Luloff. I look forward to her next book.
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Diane Englert is a writer, actor, accessibility consultant and provider. She writes for the website Write or Die Tribe and her work also appears in Ruminate Magazine, From the Depths, What Rough Beast, and We’ll Never Have Paris. She wrote libretto for several mini musicals that were all produced. Diane has a BFA in theater from University of Utah and an MBA from Marylhurst University.
The Relationship Between
Memory and Self
Remind Me Again
by Joanna Luloff
Book Review by Diane Englert