The One Memory of Flora Banks review: Firing on most cylinders
Flaws aside, Emily Barr’s YA debut hums with an original plot and likable heroine
Emily Barr: “Her page-turning talents are put to good use in Flora’s adventure, as the reader accompanies a brave teenager on a journey to discover who she really is.”
The One Memory of Flora Banks
Anterograde amnesia is the loss of ability to create new memories and recall the recent past, typically occurring after a traumatic event. Long-term memories from before the trauma can remain intact, but a failure of memory encoding and storage means that while new information is processed normally, it is quickly forgotten.
Seventeen-year-old Flora Banks has anterograde amnesia because of a loosely defined tumour. At least, that’s what the note from her mother tells her when she wakes up every morning and wonders why she feels so strange. Trapped in a childlike world of pink bedrooms and party frocks, Flora’s memory stopped working when she was 10. The pills her parents feed her daily are meant to control this most unusual of situations.
Flora is constantly monitored: at home, at her best friend Paige’s house, even as she walks the streets of her seaside home of Penzance, where all the locals know who she is and how to help her.
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With its original plot and charming protagonist, there is much to like about Emily Barr’s young adult debut. Barr, a former journalist turned thriller writer, has won awards for her adult fiction, including the WH Smith New Talent Award for her debut, Backpack, inspired by her travels around Asia. Her page-turning talents are put to good use in Flora’s adventure, as the reader accompanies a brave teenager on a journey to discover who she really is.
It seems that the publisher’s marketing department was worried about reader amnesia. A press release and cover jacket highlight that The One Memory of Flora Banks was bought for a six-figure sum in a bidding war and sold into 15 languages prepublication. Lest we forget, no fewer than 20 members of the Penguin editorial and publicity teams testify to the book’s virtues before the reader gets to make up their own mind. Accolades range from “brilliant” to “incredible” to “Barr’s writing is eerier than an Arctic squall and more beautiful than a serene tundra”.
With such hype, flaws are magnified. Flora’s voice is captivating in its childlike simplicity, but depth is an issue. Having a narrator with anterograde amnesia means plenty of opportunity for suspense, but also puts pressure on a writer to deliver twists that compensate for the gaps along the way.
Why is Flora’s older brother Jacob living in exile in Paris? What does best friend Paige really feel about Flora’s illness? How is Flora’s mother coping with such an extreme situation? What kind of relationship does Flora have with her loved ones? These issues are only broached on the surface. Fans of the suspense genre may also expect a bigger payoff for indulging the repetition that the storyline requires.
Similar books (SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, E Lockhart’s We Were Liars, Gabrielle Zevin’s Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac) call for suspension of disbelief. And so it is here, with Flora’s parents’ decision to leave their daughter at home under the care of Paige as they travel to Paris to tend to Jacob and his mysterious, life-threatening illness.
Unbeknownst to them, Paige is no longer talking to Flora after Flora kissed her boyfriend Drake on the beach after a party. Barr ramps up the momentousness of the occasion: it is not just Flora’s first kiss but the first time since she was 10 that she’s retained the memory of an event.
As she attempts to follow Drake to the remote Norwegian village of Svalbard, land of the midnight sun, Flora is a hugely sympathetic heroine. On her arm is a tattoo that reads, “Flora, be brave”, one of many lovely details that makes us wonder about her past. Barr’s light touch captures the innocence and integrity of Flora’s voice: “I am ten years old. I don’t know why I am in a grown-up’s body. I hate it and I want to go home.”
Flora’s direct style paints a picture of her surrounding landscape, from the Cornish beaches to the Arctic expanse: “It is epic. It is huge and breath-taking. The air is cold and clear. Breathing here feels different from breathing at home. The air polishes my lungs. Every step I take makes me giddy.”
There is humour as well, as Flora learns how to survive everything from broken hearts to polar bear attacks, and pathos in the way the reader is always one step ahead of her, anticipating her losses before she does. A muted ending in terms of plot gives way to deeper reflections about the lengths people go to in order to protect those they love.
Commendably left by Barr to make up their own minds, readers will surely have difficulty forgetting about Flora, her parents and their predicament.
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist.