Yesterday: sometimes it’s better not to remember

Book cover: Yesterday - Felicia Yap (a jagged edge and a blood smear)What if you could only remember yesterday? How would you live? How would you love? How would you react if your husband was accused of adultery and murder? How could you uncover the truth? Would you trust yourself to record yesterday’s facts for tomorrow?

In a present that is almost our own, the world is split in two: those who can only remember yesterday and those can also remember the day before. Everyone keeps a diary, meticulously recording the important events of each day in order to study them tomorrow in the hope of learning them as facts, safely stored in long term memory.

Fact: Claire is a Mono housewife, a good cook and gardener, and a devoted wife to her husband Mark, even if he does bully her to study her diary harder.

Fact: Mark is a famous Duo author, hoping to run for Parliament as a champion of mixed-memory marriages, however unrewarding he sometimes finds his own.

Fact: mixed memory marriages never last.

But then, how many marriages can survive the discovery of a stunning corpse whose diary claims she’s been having a torrid affair with a married man – for months?

Yesterday is a high concept book that may well delight crime fans who have little exposure to speculative fiction – using a setting with limited short term memory as the framing device for a criminal investigation is bordering on genius. Unfortunately, those more accustomed to speculative world-building may find this one doesn’t bear close inspection.

For example: Mark is a famous novelist – but with memories so short, either everyone must be a terribly fast reader (and I say this as someone who can hoover up a book in a day) or most books must be bite-sized.

More to the point: even with a 2-day memory, how does Mark keep himself clear enough on his plots to write novels in the first place? I was delighted when he was eventually pressed on exactly this point by the police inspector in charge of the murder investigation; I was less than satisfied with his answer (he reads his notes), not least because he presented it in a panicked fashion, as if it were untrue.

Hans Richardson, the police inspector, is a more interesting case: a Mono masquerading as a Duo (as the police force wouldn’t tolerate a Mono – the memory class system is entrenched). He survives by taking meticulous notes, but he’s famous for cracking cases in a day – because he has to. My issue here was how elastic his day appeared to be; the amount he achieved stretched my credibility – not least given how long it would take to actually write things down in such detail along the way.

This is merely scratching the surface of my dissatisfaction – as an archaeologist, my questions on the world-building started with the Neolithic and gathered pace from there. There’s no explanation of why the world has developed without short term memory in adulthood, but given that it has it’s hard to believe that it’s so similar to our own. A suggestion that memory loss was a recent issue – an intellectual apocalypse, if you will – would have shut me up; as it was, I was hoping the plot would distract me.

Unfortunately, I found little reprieve. This is a debut novel and it shows. The prose is variable (at first I liked that different characters had different writing styles, but these were at best uneven and by the end almost undistinguishable) and the narrative veers from tedious repetition (in case we’d failed to grasp the core concept?) to overwrought histrionics, making it difficult to take seriously. Worse, the characters are not just unlikeable (that’s absolutely fine, especially in a murder mystery) but uninteresting, tending to extremes of self-pity or self-absorption.

That said, it’s a fast read and the basic question of Who Was Sophia / What Did Mark Really Do is engaging enough that I stuck with it to the end – I was travelling over the weekend, and it fits the bill as an airport novel. I acknowledge that much of my irritation is founded in disappointment – this is a fabulous idea, however silly the execution ends up feeling.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review