Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie
HarperCollins Publishers 2012
Trade Paperback with Flaps
Emma Tupper’s mother had a lifelong love of anything African, though she never had a chance to go there herself. After her mother’s death, Emma discovers that she spent her last money on a plane ticket for Emma to go to Tswanaland in Africa for a month. Emma is on the fast-track at her big corporate law firm and looking at making partner soon, but the last thing she said to her mother was to promise she would go to Africa, and when the estate lawyer at her firm, who also handled her mother’s will, implies that she’ll put her career on the line if she takes the time off, Emma’s stubborn determination to do just that takes over.
While in Tswanaland, though, Emma falls ill while on safari and is left with an NGO in a remote village to recover. Before she can make it back to the city, a massive earthquake hits the country and destroys all its communications infrastructure, not to mention closing the airports. Emma finds herself stranded the day before she had planned on flying out, alone but for the two NGO workers who are building a school. One month becomes six before Emma finally decides to leave, flying home via London. Unable to reach any of her friends or her boyfriend, Craig, there’s no one to meet her at the airport when she arrives in a wintry December dressed in summer clothes.
But it’s when her key doesn’t work in the lock to her apartment that she really begins to worry – no, it’s when a man, a stranger, appears and unlocks the door for her that Emma starts to freak. Her furniture is still inside, her phone, her bed, but her possessions are gone. Her landlord has rented out her home to this man, Dominic, a handsome photographer and a friend of her upstairs neighbour, Tara, an actress who’s currently in LA. After calling Tara to make sure Emma isn’t a crazy person, Dominic lets her in and agrees to let her stay – after all, she has nowhere else to go. Her bank account is frozen, she can’t reach her friends and doesn’t have their mobile numbers, and she’s in a state of shock.
The shock only escalates when they go and see the landlord who explains that he rented out the flat after hearing that Emma was “missing, presumed dead.” When she finally braves her law office, she learns that not only was she presumed dead, but they even held a memorial for her. Her boyfriend is now dating her nemesis, Sophie. And where is Stephanie, her best friend? Only in Africa, trying to find her – or her dead body.
Coming back to this nightmare world, Emma has no intention of taking Dominic’s advice to remake her world however she wants it: she loved her old life. She loves her job, her apartment, she just wants things to go back to normal. Why should she change? But the truth is, everything around her has changed without her, leaving Emma clutching at the past, alone.
I got this book some time ago; I’d just finished SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep about a woman with amnesia, so it’s hardly surprising that this book seemed to jump off the shelf at me, with a title like that. And I liked the cheeriness of the cover, which is rather misleading as the entire story is set during a snowy winter, with the exception of some flashbacks to Africa. The premise sounded interesting and even a bit scary, and promised to be an engrossing read. That was the extent of my expectation when I started reading this, so I wouldn’t say that this disappointed me because it didn’t live up to them. No, it disappointed me for several other reasons.
To start with, Emma was a narrator I just couldn’t come to like. I found her to be rather ridiculous: self-indulgent in the worst way, and stupidly melodramatic – the way she runs off after talking to the landlord and throws herself into the snow? The way she throws a glass of Scotch at the wall above Dominic’s head to get his attention? If this is McKenzie’s only idea for showing us the turmoil and stress and panic that Emma’s going through, it’s really lame. Sorry but it is. Emma was also stubborn, petty, often childish, and her character seemed to be all over the place. One minute she’s the argumentative, self-assured litigation lawyer, the next she can barely speak and lets others score a hit on her. I couldn’t come to care for her priorities, I found her exceedingly irritating, and I have no idea what Dominic saw in her. She was inherently selfish, and sure, she’s in a horrible situation that would make most people pretty upset, to say the least – frankly I find the idea of returning home only to find that it’s, well, gone quite terrifying – but her self-absorbed personality was clearly something well established before then. I could understand her need to normalise her world after returning from Africa, but I was also disappointed in her disinterest to change anything – she came across as pretty boring, which I won’t hold against her because hey, I like my comforts too, but still, as a story of self-discovery, it was pretty lacking.
“Don’t you want to bust out sometimes and do something totally spontaneous?”
I laugh. “You know I don’t.”
“Maybe that’s the problem.”
I feel a flutter of annoyance. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s just … you could’ve died, Emma. Hasn’t that changed anything for you?
“You can’t be serious.”
“I know lots of bad things have happened to you, but what have you changed? You know, in your life?”
“Why does everyone expect me to change my whole life just because of what happened to me?”
“Who expects that?”
“You. Matt. Dominic.”
She starts to laugh. Hard.
“What’s so funny?”
“Your life already has changed, Emma, whether you like it or not.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
“No, I’m not sure you really do.” [pp.273-4]
She’s a good friend, Stephanie. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly interesting, though I quite liked Stephanie. While the story is, thematically, clearly about Emma’s struggle to balance her desire for the life she had with the reality of her life now, I found it rather bland and weakly explored. The glimpse into the world of corporate law (the author is a lawyer) brought nothing new to the usual stereotypes, by which I take away the idea that corporate law really is that horrible. Can’t imagine why anyone wants to be a lawyer, but that’s just me. Another thing I couldn’t identify with, with Emma.
It was weird, I thought, for McKenzie to use Tswanaland, which was within Namibia, one of several “bantustans” that were designed for the indigenous people – in this case the Tswanas – to self-govern within the country. They were all abolished in 1989. I suppose she chose it for that reason, to avoid cultural or racial stereotyping, but I’m not sure you can avoid that. While she does reminisce about her time in Africa, I couldn’t quite picture it. It was unclear to me whether she stayed as long as she did because she actually liked it there, helping to build a school and living an uncomplicated life – it was implied, yet she so quickly ditched it all when getting back that I wasn’t sure if I’d understood it properly.
Another major disappointment for me was the fact that McKenzie clearly made a concerted effort to remove anything that might distinguish this as a Canadian story, set in Montreal – in fact, at one point she even mentions a “congresswoman”, which is a distinctly American term. This saddened me. I’m sure the thinking behind this was somewhere along the lines of wanting people who live anywhere similar to Canada, to be able to identify with the story and feel like it was taking place in their own location, despite the snow. But to my cynical side, it felt like selling out. A way to Americanise a story without overtly doing so, which will definitely help with U.S. sales (the book has been picked up by an American publisher and was released there early 2013). Having lived in Canada for seven years now, I’m aware of the complex relationship between the two countries, and the debates about Canada’s national identity – or lack of one, even – and the sad fact that books with a distinctly Canadian setting don’t, apparently, sell well in the States. Personally, I think people should be proud of where they come from, and celebrate it. Besides, every American book I pick up, the first thing you learn is precisely where it’s set, town name, state, sometimes they even talk about streets and local shops. It’s interesting (and curious) to me that this is something Canadian and Australian authors tend not to do – a discussion for another day, perhaps.
It’s clear after all this that I don’t have much positive to say about Forgotten, though I will say it was a quick and easy read. I didn’t find it particularly humorous, I solved the mystery of the stolen painting as soon as the chest was mentioned, I found the plot to be ploddingly cliched, and the love interest – Dominic – woefully under-utilised and thinly sketched out. There was almost no chemistry between them, just an awful lot of drinking. It could have been a much stronger story if the main character had been someone I could respect, admire even, and definitely empathise with. As it was, I not only couldn’t find a way to relate to Emma, I wanted to tune her out. Not a recipe for enjoyment, when reading. Mostly I was just left feeling completely unimpressed, by the end, though mildly pleased that Emma did manage to achieve that balance between her old life and her new.
“This is the best and most believable story so far by Catherine McKenzie. I really felt for poor Emma who came back home to nothing… I absolutely loved reading the book!” Leeswammes’ Blog
“If you’re looking for a light, refreshing read, Forgotten is a great choice. Emma is a memorable character, and McKenzie presents something new and different with the storyline.” S Krishna’s Books
“A sweet book about growth and change and being comfortable and happy and right in your life, readers looking for chick lit with heart and intelligence will find this right up their alley.” BookNAround
“There is so much depth to this story, and a little bit of a mystery that Emma gets involved with solving, as well. There is friendship, romance, sex, love, emotion, back-stabbing and a lot more. … Catherine McKenzie has quickly become one of my favorite authors.” Good Girl Gone Redneck
“Forgotten is a bit of a far fetched story [with] several lose ends throughout the book that my mind kept (and still is) picking at. … I liked it, but I didn’t love it.” Book Journey
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