Book Review: The Last Thing She Remembers
When a woman claiming to suffer from amnesia wanders into an English village, the aftershocks of her arrival will change the town forever. Who is she? Does she really have amnesia, or is she lying? This is the opening premise of J.S. Monroe’s The Last Thing She Remembers, where the central questions aren’t “Whodunit?” but “Whoisshe and Whatisshedoingthere?”
Once she shows up, the villagers start to wonder who she is. Is she just some random woman, or does she have a past connection to the village? Could she been a mentally ill killer in the news who has just escaped from custody? Or could she be the long-lost daughter of one of the villagers? By the time the novel ends, the answers are satisfying, but the way these questions are answered is less contenting.
One of the problems with the final reveal is the abruptness of the reveal of the villain. It’s very much a “rip-off-the-mask” moment. While the villain’s motives are emphasized throughout the book, they’re presented so matter-of-factly that only a particularly suspicious and perceptive mind will take an intuitive leap and figure out how they feed into a twisted plot. It’s a heel-turn so sharp that it could cause whiplash. While the motives were present, any foreshadowing for the character’s inner darkness is so palely shaded as to be undetectable. There needed to be more to make the substantial cast of supporting characters actual suspects.
In the best fair play mysteries, such as Agatha Christie’s, the author manages to make the entire cast of characters suspicious people where the reader can see them all as potential murderers, but when the solution is revealed, the reader can relax at knowing most suspicions were unfounded, and feel comfortable knowing that the innocent characters will live ordinary, hopefully happy lives. An unfortunate recent trend in “dark mysteries” is to make all of the characters so twisted, messed up, and unpleasant, that after the killer is revealed, the reader will think, “O.K., so the other dozen people aren’t murderers, but they should still be locked up in jail or a mental hospital anyway for the safety of the rest of society. In this book, so few of the characters are developed enough to be suspicious that there’s no kick to the investigation– the looks into the minds of the supporting characters are designed to focus on the innocuous, so when we are finally allowed access to their hidden depths, the result is jarring.
Certain motifs in the novel are rather overdone. For example, the amnesiac has a tattoo of a lotus on her wrist. The first time it’s mentioned, I wondered about its relevance, and believed it will play some important role in identifying her. The second time the tattoo was mentioned, shortly after the first time it was mentioned, I figured that Monroe wanted to make sure that readers paid attention to this critical plot point. By the seventy-fifth time that tattoo was highlighted, it had been shoehorned into so many passages I found myself gritting my teeth and hoping that the darned thing got lasered off by the novel’s end. Similarly, the constant harping on vegan cuisine is emphasized so much that I found myself craving steak. Other topics, such as Eastern religions, seahorses, and the brain, are frequently mentioned, though some have a more pivotal connection to the plot than others. Some of these topics are mentioned so often, their relevance seems forced. There’s a sweet spot between underplaying and overplaying a card, and the book needed to dial back references to some important themes and integrate them more subtly, so they worked effectively as clues but also didn’t foreshadow so heavily they spoil any suspense.
Indeed, the conclusion incorporates a bunch of themes that have dominated the narrative, but other twists come suddenly, turning characters we’ve gotten acquainted with into someone we wouldn’t recognize from just a few pages earlier. Alfred Hitchcock famously explained the difference between “surprise” and “suspense,” stating that if a bomb explodes under the table without warning, that’s surprise. If the audience knows that there’s a bomb that will explode in a quarter of an hour, and the scene unfolds in real time, that’s suspense. The result is either fifteen seconds of surprise or fifteen minutes of suspense. That’s the critical issue at the heart of the denouement of The Last Thing She Remembers. There’s a couple of sharp surprises, but what the narrative really needed was more carefully crafted suspense.
The Last Thing She Remembers
By J.S. Monroe