Let’s talk about The Book of M by Peng Shepherd.
In a feat of world-building, The Book of M follows a couple named Ory and Max (the “M” of said title) as they make their way through an apocalyptic world. They’re living in a world in which people have begun to lose their shadows, and once their shadows go, they start to lose their memories, as well.
Think of the concept of things that go unwitnessed; if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound? The same concept applies here, with people’s fleeting memories. If people don’t remember it, then does it even exist? In this case, these events cease to exist or morph into something completely different. For that reason, the shadowless people are deemed dangerous enemies who must be eradicated before they deconstruct society.
When Max loses her shadow, the couple know it’s pretty much over for them. She might eventually forget Ory. Along with that forgetting, he might cease to exist.
While reading, my mind was busy with various what-ifs.
- Wouldn’t everybody then cease to exist?
- If entire cities and their populations are ceasing to exist, then wouldn’t it have spread worldwide?
- What makes someone shadowless as opposed to shadowful?
- Why does it seem like the shadows are separate, sentient beings?
That’s the danger of world-building in books; readers may become more preoccupied with the world than the story itself.
Of course, the author may have been leaving things unexplained on purpose to give the reader’s imagination the space to flex and fill in those holes with whatever they’d like. I appreciate it when an author doesn’t spoon-feed everything to us.
At the same time, if you’re going to imagine a world that big, it requires a little bit more thought. A little more explanation as a literary tour guide.
My main qualm with this book: it’s longer than it needs to be. And yes, I see the irony of my saying this right after criticizing the lack of shadow explanations.
Did we need to spend all this time with the ancillary characters and their stories? Probably not, though it was still a pleasure to get to know them.
The real heart-chopper, though, is the simple tragedy of forgetting.
When M starts to lose her memory and tries so desperately to hold on, we, the audience, mourn with her. It’s easy to compare it to such real-life ailments as Alzheimer’s.
It makes me think of some literary examples, as well, in which people have the bliss of knowledge and then the pain of forgetting, such as in the masterful short story “Flowers for Algernon.”
I wanted more from The Book of M. I wanted to know what happened with Max and Ory after the fact. I wanted to know what happened of this world and what the turnaround looked like after the apocalypse.
But maybe that’s not the point. Perhaps the point is living in the middle of the apocalypse and seeing the full horror of what’s happening.
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