the-one-memory-of-flora-banks

I LOVED this book.

‘The One Memory of Flora Banks’ features an unreliable narrator, a touching coming of age tale and a bit of a mystery.

What’s it about?

Flora is 17 and has retrograde amnesia as a result of a brain tumour she had removed when she was ten. This means she is unable to form new memories and cannot keep a mental record of events intact for more than a few hours. (Sound familiar? Think ‘Memento’ without the revenge and ‘Before I go to Sleep‘ without the terrifying past history, and…) It’s not a new concept, but it is brilliantly executed.

After leaving a confusing party, Flora finds herself alone on a beach…except soon she’s not alone. She kisses her best friend’s boyfriend, Drake, and, to her own astonishment, she remembers it, every detail of the experience.

Convinced that she loves Drake and that he is the key to fixing her memory, Flora isn’t about to let a little detail like his moving to the Arctic hold her back, so she sets off on an adventure to find him.

What’s it like?

Tender. Touching. Inspiring. Flora writes notes on her hands and arms in an attempt to keep herself on track. Her only consistent note is ‘Flora: Be Brave’, an instruction which she certainly lives by. She also relies heavily on post-it notes and a notebook she carries everywhere with her. As you can see, the potential margin for error is wide and could be catastrophic, which is why Flora is an unintentionally unreliable narrator, and why her mother tries to stop her from leaving home – ever.

A romance…of sorts

Emily Barr perfectly captures the obsession of first time young love. Flora manages to visit Drake’s former home in Penzance and gets lost in the pleasure of being surrounded by his things (albeit things he has opted to discard!):

‘I breathe in the air that was breathed out by Drake before he left.’

She is determined to turn their story into a romance, dreaming that she is in: ‘an enchanted land…a fairy-tale place, a place in which a princess can meet a handsome prince’.

When your life seems to be a blank screen, it’s perfectly understandable that you’d want to write a dramatic script onto it, and Flora is very clear about where she expects her story to go:

‘I want us to walk down a long road towards each other, and I want us to recognise each other gradually as we get closer. I picture us running towards each other, speeding up as we hurtle towards each other’s arms.’

Rolling your eyes? Be reassured: naive Flora may be a romantic, but this is NOT a typical YA romance. The reader can spot hints that Flora’s one miraculous memory may not be the limit of her abilities, and the plot developments towards the end of the story place the “romance” firmly in context.

What’s to like?

Where to start? There’s so much I loved about this book.

The prologue is highly Intriguing. What has Flora done? What is in the hut? Why throw away two stones? Is she really in her mind? I like this scene even more in hindsight because all is explained by the end of the book!

The first-person narration is beautifully handled. It would be easy for the story to feel too repetitive – after all, much of the time we are witnessing Flora repeatedly rediscovering the same facts – but Barr’s light touch and simple style means that we glance over these rediscoveries, letting Flora feel the weight of them while we anticipate her next discovery.

The mysteries ultimately revealed are credible and the family dynamic absolutely convincing. Flora’s interactions with all her family – and with her elderly neighbour – are perfect, though I found her relationship with her brother, Jacob, the most interesting.

I also loved the way Flora is a mixture of 17 and 10 years old. It must be incredibly difficult to develop as a person when you have no sense of time (a theme Flora expounds upon regularly) or mental record of change and so Flora’s more adult desires are frequently expressed in childish ways. She buys a bright red lipstick and decides to wear it ‘because it is the sort of thing a girl with a boyfriend would do’. Bless.

Representation of difference

Of course, a coming of age tale wouldn’t be complete without some proper sadness, and Flora reveals her share once she is made to face some difficult truths. Her inability to be ‘normal’, despite her very best efforts, makes her feel less than human, and Barr’s only response to this pain is to have other characters insist that she is better than ‘normal’ people, claim that everyone feels that way at times, and then dangle the hope of becoming ‘normal’ in front of her.

This ignores the very real pain Flora feels due to her incomplete sense of self. Her difficulties cannot all be ridiculed away by another character suggesting she’s talking nonsense. Her whole quest to find Drake and have him ‘fix’ her is the result of this deep anguish and sense of inadequacy, and it is disingenuous of the other characters, and seemingly Barr herself, to dismiss it so easily. Celebrating difference is a positive development, but shouldn’t be done at the expense of genuinely acknowledging a person’s difficulties and how they affect their quality of life.

I was also surprised – albeit pleased! – that more characters didn’t try to take advantage of Flora’s difficulties. Instead, almost everyone she meets seeks to protect her, which is lovely, but not completely realistic!

Final thoughts

I absolutely loved this story and read it in a couple of days (which is an achievement in itself with three small children constantly demanding my attention!) I particularly enjoyed the way everything connected by the time the story finished, though I will never fully understand the emails.

The settings – Penzance, the Artic – are convincingly evoked, especially the never-ending daylight of an Artic summer.

Flora is very sweet girl and her captivity is powerfully rendered towards the end of the book. I like the positivity and ambiguity of the ending and wondered how Flora’s life would develop.

Recommended.

‘The One Memory of Flora Banks’,
Emily Barr,
2017, Philomel Books, ebook ARC
Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.