Magazine article The Spectator

Memory Games

Magazine article The Spectator

Memory Games

Article excerpt

The Man Who Forgot His Wife

by John O'Farrell

Doubleday, £14.99, pp. 309,

ISBN 9780385606103

I read this novel while convalescing from pneumonia. It proved admirably fit for purpose. A light diet, mildly entertaining and with enough twists and turns of plot to serve as a tonic John O'Farrell is a man of many parts - comedy scriptwriter (Spitting Image, Alas Smith and Jones), political satirist (An Utterly Exasperating History of Modern Britain) and bestselling novelist. The Man Who Forgot his Wife is his fourth.

The protaganist, Vaughan, hasn't just forgotten his wife, he's forgotten everything.

Travelling on the underground one fine October afternoon, he suddenly finds his memory has been 'wiped' (more computer references to follow) and staggers into a hospital where a consultant neurologist, with more enjoyment than empathy, diagnoses a 'psychogenic fugue' - a 'flight' from his previous life, 'possibly triggered by extreme stress'.

The last novel I read in which amnesia was central was Anne Tyler's Noah's Compass, which has more wit and subtlety than O'Farrell's book but which (fair's fair) is not so suitable for convalesence. Both novels make me think that amnesia is to fiction what metaphor is to poetry - an invaluable tool. Amnesia allows a writer to work backwards, so that what might have been a rather tedious bildungsroman is given much more suspense by a character in a temporal limbo recovering his past bit by backflashing bit.

And then there's the fun one can have - and O'Farrell has a lot - with identity.

Vaughan's hospital ward pal suggests he might have been a serial killer or a drug dealer. …

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