Harvey Anderson is living his life as a 26-year-old busker in New Jersey when, one day, he is seized by violent men who beat him up and ask where they can find Sally Stirling, his girlfriend of five years. Only Harvey doesn’t remember Sally. The leader of this gang, “the Spider”, reveals that Sally has the ability to wipe memories and that he has been hunting her down for nine years to take back the memories she robbed him of. A well-paced thriller-esque chase ensues: Harvey tries to hunt down the elusive Sally and find out what happened to her and his memory.
Instead of a grand Hollywood hero, Youers has opted for a pretty average guy. Our protagonist’s most notable features are vegetarianism, a quinoa-flakes obsession and a love for nothing more than playing his guitar to birds (why? Your guess is as good as mine). While I’m usually in favour of an ordinary-guy-achieves-extraordinary-things narrative, I can’t help but feel that The Forgotten Girl follows the wrong character. Harvey is not only slightly boring but blunders his way through the pages, constantly making wrong decisions and getting people harmed along the way. The reason he does this is for purely selfish reasons: he wants to find Sally despite the fact that in erasing his memory she clearly doesn’t want him to. While trying to remember Sally, he thinks, “there had to be something there – something worth chasing, protecting”. The possibility that a woman with the ability to erase memories who has successfully been on the run for nine years can protect herself doesn’t cross his mind. Harvey, after being beaten up and shown a picture of her, a woman he doesn’t recognise, wonders “if we’d make love like strawberries and cream.” Motive determined.
Harvey as a character becomes more irritating as the plot progresses. His entitled belief that Sally should be with him because he tracked her down is as annoying as his outdated gender stereotyping (Sally buys a lot of clothes and Harvey thinks “women are – thank God – more heavenly creatures”; worse, Harvey implies that women are weak if they need time to heal before telling authorities about suffering abuse). Youer’s restriction to Harvey’s disappointing point of view means that the central romance that the book hinges on doesn’t feel complex or believable.
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In essence, the book should have followed Sally, who was ultimately more interesting and had more to offer to the plot. Her background, motivations and character arc were fascinating and The Forgotten Girl could have benefitted from fleshing this out with Sally’s perspective. This not to say that ordinary characters without special powers can’t be interesting. Yet, although Youers doesn’t go for the typical Hollywood hero, he has nevertheless gone for the Hollywood script. There are too many all-too-familiar, blockbuster-melodrama, two-dimensional exchanges for my liking, such as:
“This isn’t your fight,” I said.
“Yeah, it is.” Dad wiped his chin and sat back in his seat. “Anything happens to you, I bleed, too.”
“That goes both ways.”
Exchanges such as this make the narrative feel flat and empty. And on top of that, we are presented with what is one of the most annoying tropes in horror: mental-illness-gives-you-special-powers. In discussing the Spider’s plans, Harvey speaks of: “the similarities between psychic ability and mental illness. He suggested a widespread misdiagnosis of brain diseases such as schizophrenia, and through data collected over the next four years, estimated that ninety percent of “true” psychics reside in mental institutions.”
This potentially harmful plot point is offered as an explanation for Sally’s powers and is, quite frankly, an outdated and over-used device that doesn’t serve the narrative in any positive way. Similarly, concepts of good and bad are handled at a surface level, with implications that the lead character’s ‘evil’ has its genesis in the fact that his twin died in the womb, as well as his repressed homosexuality. Youer’s is clearly skilled at weaving stories, but the above only served to lessen the quality of the overall concept.
Unfortunately, the skilful pacing and well-handled elements of the thriller aspects weren’t enough to distract from the lead character’s unconvincing decision-making, a general lack of depth and the sense that we are simply following the wrong character. Although the premise is interesting and Youer has a clear and strong talent for drip-feeding information to the reader in an effective way, the story ultimately feels self-indulgent and contrived, and Harvey’s perspective just isn’t that interesting.
The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers is published by Titan Books. Buy the book.