I’ve always enjoyed dystopian and post-apocalyptic books and films but admittedly, I am no expert in these genres. I appreciate the creativity and uniqueness of these types of stories. I think it takes courage to write a book of speculative fiction; there’s a risk in letting your imagination run free and create a world for the reader that is idiosyncratic while still allowing them to see the familiar in this fictional setting.
Peng Shepherd is one of these risk-takers.
Her debut novel, The Book of M, is set in the near-future where people’s shadows begin randomly disappearing. The phenomenon starts with one man in India but soon spreads inexplicably across the world and is soon dubbed The Forgetting.
Why The Forgetting? Because while people afflicted with it gain a new power, they pay the price by losing their memories along with their shadows. The book turns eerie quickly when we learn that as the stages of the Forgetting continue, the person who loses their shadow soon forgets who people are, how to drive, where to find food, how to speak, that fire is hot. The thought of dying by forgetting is terrifying and all too real.
The book is focused on two main characters, a couple named Max and Ory. Each chapter is centered on one of them or on one of the other characters we meet throughout the story. Shepherd is adept at these changes of voice and this method lends to the feeling of instability and fear in the world during this terrifying catastrophe. The Forgetting hits home when Max loses her shadow and, instead of waiting until the day when she loses her memory completely, she runs away. Ory sets out after her in a desperate attempt to find her and salvage any time that they may have left together.
Ory held his breath and ran east, straight into the low-hanging morning light, as if he could outrun his terror. If he could just make it far enough, the rising sun would turn into a bridge, and then he’d be in D.C. And Max would have to be there. She’d have to be (page 75).
While she travels, Max reluctantly beings to record herself on a small tape recorder Ory had given her. This is a genius tool that Shepherd employs on various levels. While it allows us to hear Max’s narration, thoughts, and feelings, it also gives us clues into her evolution during The Forgetting. As the bits and pieces come together throughout the book, they are like pieces of a puzzle fitting together just so.
There are so many things to tell you, Ory! I’m desperate to record them all before I start to forget. I want to tell you all about the others I’m with now, who they are, what they do, where we’re going. I don’t say this to hurt you, I hope you wouldn’t take it that way– but until I met them… I didn’t realize how lonely I’d been (page 188).
The Book of M is spooky and mysterious; I was never quite sure what to expect next. Shepherd is able to make her characters come distinctly alive, so that you can see yourself in them and wonder how you would feel or react in the midst of The Forgetting. As we would, some of the characters take risks and some play it safe.
On a deeper level, this is a story of humanity and what makes one “human.” It challenges us to examine embodiment and self, as well as science and medicine. Through The Book of M, we can explore our deepest memories and the shadows we leave behind, willingly or not.
To learn more:
“‘The Book Of M’ By Peng Shepherd Is A Powerful Post-Apocalyptic Masterpiece About The Power Of Memory” by Sadie Trombetta on Bustle
“10 Questions With The Book of M Author Peng Shepherd” by Sean Tuohy on Writer’s Bone
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