Outside of soap operas, is amnesia a real thing? Yes, according to scientists, it is. Of course, those same scientists also tell us that the Higgs Boson is a real thing, yet when you demand proof they get all kinds of sketchy. What is for sure, however, is that amnesia is like a gift from the gods for writers, who have been using it as an all-purpose tool for making otherwise wonky plots work since the dawn of time. But just because amnesia is popular with writers of questionable talent doesn’t mean it can’t be brilliant—here are five authors who have used amnesia like a boss.
False Memory, by Dan Krokos
False Memory is a book about identity—why we are who we are—and the amnesia Miranda North suffers from begins on page one, when she wakes up and spurs terror in everyone around her by using a mysterious power she has no memory of acquiring in this punchy, exciting read. The genius of this incredible book (and certainly one reason why it won the 2013 Thriller Award for Best Young Adult Novel) is that the amnesia suffered by the protagonist actually has consequences. It’s not just there to keep secrets from the reader, it actually drives the story as Miranda struggles to understand her abilities and where she fits into an ominous, convoluted mystery.
The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum
After all this time, and so many movies and reboots of those movies, it’s easy to boil Jason Bourne down to the image of Matt Damon performing some fairly improbable stunts, but let’s not forget that Ludlum expertly used amnesia as a way to propel the plot of his classic spy novel, not merely to play tricks with the reader. This is another book that plays with identity, using a character who assumes several throughout his life and the story itself, and it uses the lack of memory as a way of exploring how much of who we are is where we’ve been. One of the great things about how amnesia is handled in this book is the way Ludlum ensures that Bourne’s adversaries don’t always realize he’s lost his memory for most of the story, using the condition to create tension instead of covering plot holes.
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Latro in the Mist, by Gene Wolfe
No one does complex, lyrical, and subtle like Gene Wolfe. A Roman soldier who loses his short term memory, Latro forgets everything that happened that day each time he sleeps; but he gains the power to see and interact with the supernatural world. Wolfe’s novel is a wonderful study in how our memory affects our sense of not just ourselves, but our perception of the world. Latro’s lack of memory not only means he must review a journal he keeps every morning to re-acquaint himself with his situation (and yes, these novels pre-date the film Memento by thirteen years) but also that he doesn’t see anything unusual in his new abilities and powers. How much of our decisions are ruled by memories? What kind of people would we all be if freed from our past selves? Wolfe, as usual, works these concepts effortlessly into a brilliant fantasy story that will stay with you long after you finish it.
Fledgling, by Octavia Butler
Amnesia can be a really powerful storytelling tool, because it allows the author to control how information is portioned to the reader. While this can be a cheap trick, in the hands of someone as skilled as Butler, it’s a way of playing with our expectations and assumptions. The protagonist of Fledgling is Shori, who wakes up with no memory of herself but quickly exhibits some odd behaviors, leading to the conclusion that she isn’t a young girl, but rather a 53-year old vampire. Butler’s take on the vampire story is gripping, and her use of amnesia forces the reader into the same confused headspace as Shori herself—an incredible literary trick that drags you almost viscerally into the story.
I Am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier
When used poorly, the big mistake made with amnesia is having the character be totally aware of their memory loss—this makes the amnesia the focus. In I Am the Cheese, Adam’s amnesia only becomes obvious as the story grows increasingly disturbing, and the facts stop adding up. One of the most complex and challenging young adult novels ever penned, Cormier’s use of amnesia doesn’t just provide cover for plot trickery, it serves to treat the reader like the proverbial boiling frog, with tension rising by almost-unnoticed increments until the mind-blowing resolution.
So, any amnesia classics we forgot to mention (couldn’t resist)?