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What She Said: THE BOOK OF M by Peng Shepherd

Today we bring bring back our feature, “What She Said…” in which we both review books that the other has previously read and reviewed. This feature arose because of a very serious dilemma we faced at Casa de Smugglers: what happens when one of us reads and reviews a book that the other desperately wants to read and review? We can’t really post about the same book AGAIN, right? WRONG! Thus, “What She Said…” was born.

Last year, Ana read and loved Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M–a post-apocalyptic literary fable in the vein of Station Eleven. As a former apocalypse fiction junkie–admittedly, I am still an apoc-fic sucker–how could I resist the promise of Shepherd’s unique end-of-the-world scenario?

THE BOOK OF M by Peng Shepherd

9780062669605 | June 2018 | William Morrow | HC 496 pages

Brad Thor’s Summer 2018 Fiction Pick for THE TODAY SHOW!

“Eerie, dark, and compelling, [The Book of M] will not disappoint lovers of The Passage and Station Eleven.” –Booklist

WHAT WOULD YOU GIVE UP TO REMEMBER?

Set in a dangerous near future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. It is a sweeping debut that illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

As they journey, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

Like The Passage and Station Eleven, this haunting, thought-provoking, and beautiful novel explores fundamental questions of memory, connection, and what it means to be human in a world turned upside down.

What Ana Said

A high concept Fantasy Post-Apocalyptic Horror in which the apocalypse happens when people lose their shadows and subsequently (and as a direct result) their memories and eventually all of themselves. And when people can’t hold on to their memories and effectively to themselves, reality is fundamentally – and literally – altered. The Forgetting ends the world as it once was. This book asks questions about identity and memory that I am sill thinking about ever since I finished reading it. I can’t believe this is Peng Shepherd’s debut. What a book – it is devastating, tragic and heartbreakingly hopeful.  

What Thea Says

There’s a formulaic simplicity to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. (Having just watched the pilot of The Passage, I am reminded of this once again.) There is the World Before, fraying at the edges and ready for the inevitable disaster. Then there is the apocalypse, which shows up either gradually or all at once, resulting in chaos and the fall of organized society. Finally, there is the New Order, who takes over after the chaotic fall (usually with some kind of extremist agenda).

In The Book of M, the setup is thus: one day in India, a man loses his shadow. At first, it’s delightful and whimsical–Hemu Joshi, the man without a shadow is an international news sensation, with devout followers who believe him to be some kind of holy figure, and scientists stumped by this physics-defying phenomenon. A few days later, Hemu starts forgetting things–so many things that he doesn’t realize where he is, or why people are filming him, or even who his family are. Each day, Hemu loses more of himself, until there’s nothing left.

Then, others lose their shadows.

Soon enough it spreads, throughout Asia, Europe, and jumping to the United States–it starts in Boston but works quickly towards Washington DC, and then everywhere else. It is here, in Boston and Arlington, that The Book of M begins it’s tale.

There are four main storylines in The Book of M: Orlando “Ory” Zhang’s narrative, which begins in a flurry of fear two years after human shadows started to disappear, and a week after his wife Max’s shadow vanishes. Ory goes out for supplies and food, anxious the entire time that Max’s forgetting might accelerate while he is away… And when he returns home many hours later after being robbed by other scavengers, his beloved wife is gone.

Miles away in Boston, Mahnaz “Naz” Ahmadi is utterly alone, and scared. A teenage archery star, Naz emigrated to the United States from Tehran to train for the Olympics–but when shadows start disappearing in Boston, she fears she will never see her family again.

In New Orleans, a man wakes up with his shadow but without a single memory of his life–though he can remember words and concepts, all of his personal memories are gone–after surviving a near-fatal car crash. The Amnesiac travels to India with his memory-specialist neurologist in the early days of the outbreak, hopeful that perhaps there is some link between the Amnesiac’s and Hemu Joshi’s conditions.

And then, there’s Max’s narrative–this is the one that’s worth more than the rest of them combined. Max speaks to a tape recorder that hangs around her neck: as she makes her way away from Ory, she explains why she chose to leave him, and how desperate she is to hold on to her memory of him above all else. Max joins a group of shadowless on the road, helping them navigate their way South, to New Orleans–where rumors of “The One Who Gathers” is, and a wild hope that perhaps he can help them hold on to their memories before it is too late.

The Book of M poses an entirely unique and irresistible version of the apocalypse: what happens when people’s shadows disappear? Why are memories tied to shadows? And why can the shadowless accomplish feats of pure magic, remaking the world in the way they misremember it? I love this last bit–where Max forgets that deer don’t have wings, or when she changes Ory’s knife handle to her favorite color, green, by the simple act of imagining it that way. For every piece of magic, there is a cost–the larger the act, the bigger the chunk of memory gone. The desperation that Max and her fellow shadowless feel, the way she sees a shadowless couple together and despairs because the only reason they know they’re married is because someone who knew them before had to tell them so, gives her narrative the most weight. For me, Max’s is the narrative I kept wanting to get back to–hers and the Amnesiac’s in almost equal measure.

The Amnesiac’s tale is harrowing in a different way–like the shadowless, he has lost himself and his history; but unlike Hemu Joshi or Max, his own shadow is rooted, immutably, to his figure. I loved this particular addition to the story, and the Amnesiac’s key role in the future of humankind–if someone was to understand what the shadowless go through, it would be him, right? (I don’t particularly like the way his story rounds out at the end–it feels like a little mystical hand-waving, but more on that in a bit.)

Even Ory and Naz’s narratives are impactful and significant, especially in the early chapters. I can’t help it, but I kinda hate Ory–he’s so preoccupied with the idea of Max forgetting him and what it means to him without raelly thinking about what she must be going through. Even when he sets out to find her, Ory’s kind of passive–he’s on a mission to find his wife against the odds and doesn’t want to give her up, but his motivation reads as though its rooted in a place of selfishness, instead of caring about the last terrifying moments that Max may be living on her own. I also hated the ending–but more on that in a bit. In contrast, Naz’s storyline is certainly powerful and memorable; as a young woman separated from her family and experiencing the end of the world in a strange land, you can’t help but feel for her. The relationship with her mother, the love and bond between her and her sister are both powerful, palpable motivations, especially in the early chapters. By the book’s third act, things have shifted and… well, again, I wasn’t a fan.

So beyond the main characters and narrative style, I truly appreciated the high stakes and revelations The Book of M poses (but never answers), about what it means to be shadowless and the presence of magic in the world. I don’t mind that the book has no real answers to any of these questions–what does it mean to be shadowless? Why are shadows tied to memory? Do elephants really experience memories of other they haven’t lived? What does the pull of magic and sacrificing memory all really mean? Sure, I would have liked there to be more of a thesis to the magic and cause of memory loss throughout the story… but I can live without it. Sometimes things happen and they are beyond the control of the characters surviving the apocalypse–and sometimes, that’s completely fine.

Where things started to go off the rails for me, however, was in the book’s third act. The writing for most of the novel is haunting and restrained, only occasionally dipping into pseudo-self-important pretense. (For example, “The One Who Gathers” and “The One With A Middle But No Beginning” are monikers of the Amnesiac that catch on and spread across the East Coast, from Shadowed and Shadowless alike–and all I can think is, really? The One Who Gathers catches on in regular gossipy parlance?) Further, the novel’s third act is where some of the most frustrating and senseless of the post-apocalypse formula emerge–because of course there are insane cultists at the end of the world who wear all white (why?) and attract all of the remaining survivors between Virginia and Louisiana. Similarly, the visuals of a Red Shadlowless King fighting an army of shadowed in the remains of the greater DC area sounds and reads as really fucking cool, but when you stop to think about what the army is actually doing none of the motivations make any sense.

And then, there’s the ending, with its huge heaping of melodrama and shameless exploitative emotional manipulation, in which all of the goodwill I had built up for certain characters flies out the window in a blaze of ridiculousness.

SPOILERS: (highlight to read)

WHY did Ory and Naz have to have a romantic relationship in the last few chapters? (A LEGAL BUT STILL TEENAGE Naz, for that matter) I can forgive and understand Max’s shadow being attached to Ursula–that’s a kind of tragic occurrence that works nicely in this type of genre fiction. But was the point of the melodrama of Ory sleeping with Naz right before learning his wife is alive and cured, only to then find that she’s not really his Max and attached to the wrong physical body? This smatters of soap opera manufactured nonsense that the book did not need (and is completely out of line with anything else in the text), and feels completely exploitative for cheap gut punching drama. The book could have ended with Ory dying and never knowing that Max was still alive and attached to the wrong body. Or Ory could have accepted his wife. Or everything could have been the same, sans Ory and Naz hooking up literally a page before Ory finding out that Max is around.

And while we’re on things that didn’t really make sense, what is with the Amnesiac’s sudden magical elephant shadow powers? It’s a convenient Deus Ex Machina that I could accept if it made more sense–the Amnesiac goes from a confused but generally kind and trying-to-do-his-best average dude, and then all of a sudden loses his other eye and is a magic-wielding, elephant-shadowed prophet?!?! One who is so out of touch with humanity he doesn’t understand different shadows and forms for different people? (And also–I don’t really understand how the books at the end are going to save the shadowless and help them recover their shadows because unless they wrote those books how will their memories be restored? I NEED MORE ANSWERS.

Rant about the ending aside, and despite my misgivings, I still very much enjoyed this book and am glad to have read it. Ignoring the end: the book is best in Max’s heartbreaking narrative to Ory, her fight to remember him until the end, and the inevitability of their loss. Everything else is just distraction.

Rating: 7 – Very Good.

3 Comments

  • What She Said: THE BOOK OF M by Peng Shepherd – Headlines
    January 22, 2019 at 8:56 am

    […] post What She Said: THE BOOK OF M by Peng Shepherd appeared first on The Book […]

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey
    February 3, 2019 at 1:51 am

    I think I’ll probably pass on this one. The ending sounds very frustrating and I definitely prefer books that have more fleshed out world building. Thanks for the helpful review!

  • Handykith.com
    February 5, 2019 at 7:12 am

    It is still very clearly visible some artificial pressure. Before sudden events or outcomes, there is usually a rather lengthy and boring scene of long conversations or detailed descriptions, because of which this novel is read faster than if there were no such scenes. The desire to know what will happen next makes you turn these pages faster , as they do not add anything to the story. The language is very straightforward and uninteresting, in the process of reading I did not want to keep quotes, and the imagery of some elements, it seems to me, has faded because of the scarcity of descriptions. In general, not the worst, but not a great novel, I have quenched my thirst for post-up, but unfortunately, it does not hold out to the new favorite representative of the genre.

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