The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse

I couldn’t help but be seduced by the stunning cover (by @saraharnett) of David Whitehouse’s The Long Forgotten. The cover shows a number of rare flower blooms and the embossed outline of a whale.

Apart from being a brilliant, unputdownable read, I continuously referred back to that image on the cover with total pleasure trying to deduce which flower it was we were tracking down next.

The Long Forgotten refers to a flight that disappeared 30 years ago, and it could also refer to the list of flowers Peter Manyweathers discovered in a love letter that fell out of a botany book he was reading that lead him on an obsessive quest to find six exotic flowers that bloom in unusual and rare circumstances.

I know you think I give botany short shrift in favour of my own more lively pursuits…but you’d be wrong! I’ve done my research (you can stop laughing now) and found six flowers so unique, so fantastic that when I think of them, they could only ever remind me of you. Here to prove it is a list.

The Gibraltar Campion
Sheep-eating plant
Kadupul flower
The living fossil
The Udumbara
The Death Flower

The story opens as a man in an underwater capsule has lost communication with his research station and he has 18 minutes of oxygen left, it’s an intense opening and provides a connection within the story that isn’t fully revealed until the end.

We then meet Dove, a young man living in London, a university dropout working in an ambulance call centre. Raised as a foster child, we learn of his relationship with his foster parents and an extreme fear of abandonment. He is plagued by headaches that precede the invasive memories of the rare flower-hunter, a man he never knew, leading him on his own quest to find out whose thoughts have invaded his own, and what they have to do with him.

The Kadupul Flower

Each time Dove gets a headache, we are plunged into the story of Peter Manyweather, a man who cleans houses for a living – houses of the dead. After finding the love letter, he joins a botanical etchings class, in the hope of meeting other enthusiasts and there meets and befriends a Danish academic, Dr Hens Berg, who suggests he get on a plane and go to find the flowers.

The old man snatches back his arm and presses his knuckles hard into the front of his skull, while at his feet Dove does the same. The pain is more intense than before, sharper, faster, a blade carving open the space inside him, splaying it out, and filling it with something new.

A memory of his mother.

Much of the novel occurs on these journeys, pursuing these rare blooms, and slowly uncovering the mystery of Dove’s true identity.

She pointed to a bright pink bloom, with so many petals it looked like a hundred camellias in one flower.

‘The Middlemist’s Red. They say there is just one in the world now, in an English country garden. There is not a single one left in China, even though it is Chinese. I think it is proof that we do not belong to a certain place, but that we belong to the world. It is a flower I cannot die until I have seen.’

Rafflesia arnoldii, the corpse flower

It’s both a mystery and an adventure story, though not in the usual sense, we’re not aware of the mystery until it begins to reveal itself to Dove, he’s not in search of himself consciously, he’s plagued by memories that are impacting his day-to-day life and by following clues to their origin, he’s hoping for relief.

Speaking about his inspiration for the story, the author shares how he came across the raffelsia – sometimes referred to as the corpse flower – fifteen years ago and how it intrigued him. This and other threads relating to the disappearance of  MH370 and an obsession with memory came together to create the novel.

It took me a long time to find a story where a corpse flower might be of use. I suppose it needed a mystery, but I didn’t have one until Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 went missing between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, in March 2014. I wondered how long it would be before people who weren’t directly connected to MH370 forgot about it, even though it was out there, in the ocean, somewhere.

I loved the book and its many layers, the way they slowly unravel and at the same time, we are taken on a unique quest to hard to get to places, in search of these exotic flowers. It also puts an interesting spin on the idea of shared memories, of stolen memories, of things we may have heard that later we believe to be our own memories.

Middlemist Red

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Note: This book was provided as a review copy, thank you to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy.

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie #ManBookerPrize

I read Home Fire in two days, I thought it was brilliantly done, heartbreaking, tragic, essential. It’s been long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and certainly makes my short list! I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s back list.

Underpinning the novel is the premise of Sophocles’ 5thC BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who must protect the state’s security.

Before reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, I downloaded a translation of Antigone to read, she acknowledges herself that Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone (Oberon Books, 2015) and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney were constant companions as she wrote, expressing gratitude too, for the children’s book version The Story of Antigone and its author Ali Smith.

In Ali Smith’s version there is a discussion at the end of the book about what stories are, which reads:

“Stories are a kind of nourishment. We do need them, and the fact that the story of Antigone, a story about a girl who wants to honour the body of her dead brother, and why she does, keeps being told suggests that we do need this story, that it might be one of the ways that we make life and death meaningful, that it might be a way to help us understand life and death, and that there’s something nourishing in it, even though it is full of terrible and difficult things, a very dark story full of sadness.”

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a contemporary retelling of the classic play, set in contemporary London. Even though I knew the premise of the story from having read the play, the story unfolded as if I had no prior knowledge of its likely outcome, it has its own unique surprises and insights, making it a compelling read.

We meet Isma, the eldest daughter of a family, who’ve been raised by their mother and grandmother, as she announces to her twin brother and sister Aneeka and Parvaiz that she is going to the US to complete her PhD studies that were put on pause after the death of their mother and grandmother within the space of a year, leaving her to become the mother to griefstruck twelve-year-old twins. She had briefly known her father, but the twins never.

The rigorous interrogation she is put through on leaving the UK reveal something in her family background that their entire family has tried to keep quiet, just wanting to move on with their lives, that their father had abandoned them and gone to fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan and had died en route to Guantanamo.

While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of a British politician she detests, setting in motion a litany of events that will have a catastrophic impact on both their families.

“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman become Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”

For Parvaiz, the only son, the lack of a father figure created a void, his grandmother had been the only family member willing to talk about him, but her stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became, a subject she was reluctant to be drawn into.

“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”

It’s a riveting, intense novel that propels the reader forward, even while something in us wants to resist what we can feel coming. It pits love against loyalty, family versus country, and cruelly displays how hard it is for families to distance themselves from the negative patterns of their ancestral past.

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi and now lives in London, a dual citizen of the UK and Pakistan. Her debut novel In The City by the Sea, written while still in college, was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK and every novel since then has been highly acclaimed and shortlisted or won a literary prize, in 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.

Her novels are (linked to Goodreads):

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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