The best books about memory and forgetting

The Books I Picked & Why

Before I Go to Sleep

By S.J. Watson

Book cover of Before I Go to Sleep

Why this book?

This book is now a film, but the book is much better! Imagine waking up every day without any memories. Imagine not knowing who your husband is. Imagine your husband having to explain you had an accident two decades earlier and you can’t form new memories. Well, this is that book… The problems start when the narrator begins to reconstruct her past bit by bit, though she keeps getting curtailed by her memory loss, which is both riveting and frustrating for the reader! As she gets closer to the truth, she realises her memories might not be the only things she can’t trust. It’s such a thrilling read and hard not to speed read this in one go!

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The Housekeeper and the Professor

By Yoko Ogawa

Book cover of The Housekeeper and the Professor

Why this book?

This is the tender and intriguing story of a brilliant math professor with a peculiar problem--ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. The other main character is a young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him. Each day, the characters are reintroduced to one another, while the Professor’s long-term memories open up new directions for them all, creating close bonds and a strange familiar unit. It’s a simple story but it has remained with me for some reason – perhaps because memory is so key to who we are but somehow, in this book, the characters are drawn together and create something despite that. I also loved the inter-generational friendships. 

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The Woman Before Me

By Ruth Dugdall

Book cover of The Woman Before Me

Why this book?

This one is a bit of a cheat as It doesn’t fall into the category of memory and forgetting as easily but I think it is definitely about past trauma, trying to reinvent yourself, ignoring parts of your true nature, which for me, is a form of forgetting. In this tense novel, three women must uncover the truth about a tragic incident, one of whom is a probation officer trying to decide if a prisoner should be released on parole. It’s told from dual perspectives and it keeps twisting throughout. The last twist really threw me and I wanted to go back and read it again.

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One of Us

By Michael Marshall Smith

Book cover of One of Us

Why this book?

This is a sci-fi thriller with amazing concepts and a page-turning story! Meet Hap Thompson – his job is to take on other people’s memories. He carries bad memories for a few hours and gets paid for the privilege. When he gets landed with a bad memory by someone who won’t take it back, he finds himself on the run. Then, people start disappearing… This is a fab read – refreshing different with some sci-fi elements, but still a thriller by nature. Michael Marshall Smith’s writing is both dark, humorous, and inventive. I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect novel but for the ideas about memory and forgetting, it delivers a lot.

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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

By Charles Yu

Book cover of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Why this book?

I am not actually a huge sci-fi fan overall. I actually just love books about memory, identity, and facing up to your true self. This one is a perfect fit for this. It’s about a character called Charles Yu (yes, the same as the author!) who travels through time to find his father, the inventor of time travel no less. His job is to stop people trying to change the past, which never ends well. His own mother is stuck in a self-imposed time loop and he is in love with an operating system. In this bizarre and often humorous tale, Yu forces us to question our own fragilities and coping mechanisms. Despite its sci-fi leanings and the oddities, it is a story of family, love, and what it means to be human – and ultimately, memory and the ways it can damage or heal a person. 

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