FLASHBACK (Henry Holt and Co. 2004)
Author, Jenny Siler
FLASHBACK starts off with a nun performing an evening ritual in a chapel at a French Benedictine convent. But any notions that this book will start slowly and quietly are swiftly put to rest when the nun gets grabbed by a man--one of a band of armed thugs who creep up on the chapel in the gathering gloom and massacre all the nuns (all except the nun who's grabbed, but breaks free and gets away). While he has her, the man briefly questions the nun about a woman the convent took in--an American who's lost her memory, who they refer to as Eve.
Fortunately, Eve's with her shrink at the time, trying to deal with her memory loss issues and strange dreams that suggest she's perhaps not the nicest person, that she may have a sordid past that's possibly too painful for her to want to recall. Her memory loss was caused by a bullet shot through her brain. (That's a bad sign of some sort.) She can recall language skills, rudimentary tasks and other practical things. She just can't remember who she is or how she ended up in a field in France, with a bullet in her head.
Eve returns to the convent and is horrified to learn of the massacre. She talks to the sole surviving nun, who tells her, They came for you. These words send Eve off and running, with the reader happily following along. She can't stay at the convent, but must find out who she is. Her only clue is a Moroccan ferry ticket (scribbled with strange Arabic letters) in her pocket. So, Eve grabs a dead nun's passport, dyes her hair to match the photo and it's off to Morocco she goes. Where she meets a number of interesting, but not always friendly, people, including another American named Brian, who's . . . well, really interesting.
Jenny Siler, who also writes as Alex Carr, has an uncanny knack for capturing the feel--the sights, sounds and smells--of the exotic locales where Eve ends up. Her evocative descriptions of each place from Morocco to Bratislava are sometimes so thick with foreign place names, you may find it mentally tongue-twisting. But she can nail a scene with a single well-crafted phrase. Her sardonic sense of humor also stands her in good stead--especially when she writes about the American expatriate crowd. And the plot takes so many twists and turns, I thought I'd get mental whiplash. It's a story that keeps you guessing and turning the pages. Keeps raising the question: who can Eve trust? Can she trust herself? Her dreams? Her flashbacks? And what about Brian? He's so . . . interesting. (I shall say no more on that subject.)
Meanwhile, there's Eve herself. (Or is it Hannah Boyle? Or Leila Brightman? Or someone else entirely?) Eve, who's feeling insecure and plagued with strange dreams that may or may not be memories. She also has an uncanny ability to handle a gun, to apply aggressive force and an instinct to scan a room for the closest exit. Hmm . . . sounds an awful lot like she was . . . a criminal? A spy? An assassin? You really feel the pain and confusion of Eve's not knowing--as well as the pain of her knowledge that somewhere, at sometime, she had a child, who she can't remember either. (She has occasional flashbacks about an infant, but her only hard evidence is an episiotomy scar.)
And as Eve puts the bits and pieces to the puzzle of her past together (which may or may not come together seamlessly--but who cares? just enjoy the ride), her doing so not only comprises a riveting story, but leads the reader to ponder the bigger issues of memory and identity. Such as, how much can we trust our memories? How much do we really know about ourselves? Or anyone else?