Amnesia as a genre

Hands up if you know anyone who has ever suffered full-on amnesia. I’m not talking the “I did not have sexual intercourse with that woman” kind so favoured by politicians, but the kind where someone has an accident and wakes up missing the last several years of their life.

Don’t know anyone? How about celebrities then? Have you ever read about this happening to a well-known person? You’d think it would be in all the papers, wouldn’t you. No?

Me neither. So why does it happen so very often in fiction? It could practically be a sub-genre all on its own.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I love a good amnesia story. It’s like the ultimate mystery, where the puzzle the detective has to solve is their own life. I never get tired of it.

I read a couple last year, which made me think about how often I’d seen it used. There was The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson, a slightly science-fictional Young Adult contribution to the genre. A teenage girl comes out of a long coma with no memory of her life at all. She has to watch family videos to relearn her history. But why doesn’t her grandmother seem to like her? Why are her family hiding her away from the world? There’s an awesome moment when you find out what’s really going on.

About the same time I also read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, a more typical entrant in the genre. There usually seems to be some crucial emotional entanglement the heroine (and yes, the amnesiacs are always women) has forgotten. In this one Alice has forgotten the last ten years of her life, so she thinks she’s happily married and expecting her first child. In fact she has three children and she and her husband are separated.

Or there’s Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella, where the heroine thinks she’s happily married because she’s forgotten the existence of her lover. Or Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult. Who wouldn’t want to wake up with no memory only to find they’re married to Hollywood’s most gorgeous star? Until you start to remember what he’s really like …

It was also a popular plot device in the Mills and Boons I read as a teenager. A particular favourite, whose name I’ve now forgotten, involved a woman who lost her memory in the same car accident that killed her husband. Later on she discovered, in very dramatic circumstances, that the child she’d thought was her husband’s was actually the hero’s. She’d forgotten that her marriage was unhappy and she’d been about to leave the husband for the hero.

So why do you think it’s such a popular theme in fiction, when it never seems to happen at all in real life? Is it a kind of wish fulfilment? A chance to see what life would be like if you could start fresh with a clean slate? Are there a whole bunch of women out there wondering if they would still have married their husbands if they met them as the people they are now? (and just in case you’re wondering, dear, my answer to that would be yes).

Anyone got any other good amnesia books to recommend?

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6 Responses to Amnesia as a genre

  1. Jacqui says:

    I have days I’d LIKE to forget. Does that count?

    Also, have you read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks? He’s a neurologist and it’s all fascinating cases of brain damage causing bizarre failures like amnesia.

  2. liquidambar says:

    We’ve actually all experienced amnesia: early-life amnesia. Who among us can remember our first birthday, for example?

    But I think adult amnesia is so appealing as a fictional device because it opens up so many interesting possibilities–mystery and conflict chief among them.

    –writerjenn (Jenn Hubbard)

  3. ellsea says:

    There was a case here, a couple of years ago now. A man found wandering around, with no knowledge of who he was and the only clue they had was that he was an amazing piano player – there was speculation that the amnesia was a hoax … but I can’t remember now what came of it.

  4. Marina says:

    Jacqui — I’ve always thought that was a great title, but I’ve never actually got around to reading it. Sounds interesting.

    Jenn — I think you’re right, and it’s the mystery aspect that makes it so appealing. There are other things that rarely happen in real life, like winning the lottery, for example, but nobody writes books about that.

    Ellsea — ooh, that sounds interesting! I wonder what happened? Nice twist if the amnesia was a hoax — I haven’t seen that done in a novel before.

  5. Rabia says:

    I agree with writerjenn about the mystery and conflict aspect of amnesia.

    Amnesia does occur more in fiction than in real life, but so do other things, like getting involved in murder investigations or stumbling into conspiracies. We like to read about ordinary (or not so ordinary!) people get caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

    The two amnesiac novels that immediately jump to mind are See Jane Run (women’s fiction) and The Ill-Made Mute (fantasy).

    Thanks for stopping by my blog a couple days ago!

  6. Marina says:

    I’d forgotten about The Ill-Made Mute. That was a really cool twist on the theme. Haven’t read See Jane Run — must look out for it!