The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr (Penguin Random House UK) PB
RRP $19.99 ISBN 9780 141368511
Reviewed by Dianne Bates
This YA novel which sold in 16 languages before publication and was acquired after a multi-publisher auction is original and at most times frustrating in the extreme. The problem is the nature of affliction which the book’s protagonist, Flora Banks, suffers from. She has anterograde amnesia which she has been told is the result of an operation to remove a tumour on her brain when she was ten years old. From then on, the now seventeen-year-old, Flora retains those memories she has up until she was ten, but after that she can’t remember anything day-to-day.
The whole story, told from Flora’s perspective, means that she constantly repeats facts: thus the reader gets inside her brain and her fragmented memory. Sentences are short and simple so that the text is written in a jerky fashion, like post-notes that are aide–memoires. But always the next day – often only hours later – those memories have vanished. Flora relies on post-notes, messages written on her hands and arms, and photos she takes on her i-phone to remind herself of what is happening in her life. She also has a tattoo to remind her of her name and the fact that she is brave. ‘I am Flora, I am brave.’
When her parents head off to France to be with her older brother Jacob who is seriously ill in hospital, Flora decides she wants to see if she can exist by herself: ‘I want to be allowed to live inside my memory.’ She has recently sacrificed her friendship with Paige, her best friend since kindergarten when she kisses Paige’s boyfriend Drake who is heading off to the Arctic to a place called Svalbard. Paige, who has been a constant and very caring friend until what she sees as Flora’s betrayal, is supposed to be with Flora when her parents go away. But, wounded, Paige is not around.
While living alone, Flora receives a text message from Drake who says he is missing her. Many emails pass between them before Flora’s parents are due to return. But when they fail to do so – feeling that Jacob needs them more than Flora does, and confident that Paige is caring for Flora – the headstrong and in-love teenager decides to fly to Svalbard to be with Drake. Naively, she believes that her mind will work when they are again reunited.
Imagine how difficult it must be for Flora to do anything at all! And yet, despite constant confusion, miscommunication, misunderstandings and the always loss of memory with facts, people and places continually melting in her brain, Flora, now obsessed by Drake, manages, with the help of her aide-memoires and the kindness of strangers, to reach her destination
The second half of the book is easier to read than the first half. Perhaps the reader has managed by then to accept the fact of memory loss and the need for constant repetition. But, too, the second half has more interesting people and places in it, and more physical action. Eventually Flora – and the reader -- comes to realise that her whole being and her experiences are built on lies. Even her obsession with Drake turns out to be built on a lie: the one memory – that she kissed Drake and they are both in love – is false as well.
This is a highly unusual book which is very cleverly written. It certainly makes one thankful for a mind that is constant and not subject to fragmentation and loss. The characters in it – Flora, her parents, Jacob, Paige and the others who people the story – are all real and believable. Teen readers who are challenged by books which are ‘different’ and difficult to read will certainly enjoy Flora’s story.