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Beware of the book that is impossible to forget

Most readers will have experienced the sense of panic of picking up their holiday read, only to realise a few pages in that the book is very familiar. It is a sad reality that, over a reader’s life, many books are forgotten; the memory of some becomes a little hazy as soon as the covers have been closed.

But other books linger long after the close of the final chapter. Their characters haunt the reader, speaking to them in those quiet moments when they are lying in bed, just before sleep arrives.

They are not usually books that aim to frighten or shock; their stories don’t take place down darkened alleys on stormy nights. More often, they are set in streets like those we know, in houses much like our own. Written in a style that is spare and unflinching, while sometimes the stuff of nightmares, they often tell of true events and real people, or fictional characters that closely resemble those we know.

One such book, which has had a long, steady hold over me, is In Cold Blood. Truman Capote’s true crime novel tells the story of the murder of a family during the burglary of their farmhouse in Kansas. It was not just in recounting the shocking crime that the novel was so powerful, but also the way Capote framed the two perpetrators – while one aligned with the reader’s expectations of a cold-blooded murderer, the other was polite and gentle, challenging our preconceptions and eliciting an uncomfortable sympathy.

It is not just true crime that can linger in the mind of the reader. A fictional crime novel that I found equally difficult to shake was The Collector, by John Fowles. I read The Collector at a time when Melbourne cowered under the spectre of Mister Cruel. Girls had been taken from their homes, sometimes never heard of again.

In the novel, a lonely butterfly collector a woman, holding her captive in a cellar under his house, just another item he had ‘collected’.

Decades later, it was difficult not to remember Fowles’ book when I heard the various stories of girls kept imprisoned within or underneath houses, many resembling the cellar in The Collector. Later, Room had a similar whiff of the terrible, yet possible.

Similarly, it is not hard for the reader to recognise the real crimes that might have inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin. But it is not just the crime that is so memorable, but also Lionel Shriver’s depiction of a mother struggling and ill-equipped in her adjustment to motherhood, with disastrous consequences. While I read We Need to Talk About Kevin before I had children, the themes of inadequacy and responsibility were familiar, yet skewed in a terrifying way. Here, the question remains over the nature and source of evil.

In The Lord of the Flies, William Golding also introduced the concept of good and evil in his depiction of the behaviour of boys stranded on a deserted island. Met with challenging conditions, the boys respond with violence, bullying and fierce power struggles. While the boys on the island started off as children readers could recognise, by the end of the novel their behaviour had degenerated to the point of becoming animalistic. There were few readers who didn’t ask themselves whether this could happen to those they knew, or even, themselves, in certain circumstances. The answer is unforgettable, and terrifying.

And that is possibly one of the reasons these books are so chilling – they do not sit comfortably in the realm of fantasy, but the situations and characters are recognisable from those we see on the nightly news. And while news bulletins might make the viewer shake their head in bewilderment, the books take readers further, exposing the experience of both the captor and the captive. On the pages, the unimaginable is vividly imagined, and the reader is introduced to the humanity amid the horror.

But, does this explain why they are so memorable? In a way. Studies have shown that, in the same way that we remember bad events (everyone recall where they when they heard about the events of September 11, 2001), we are better at recalling negative emotions than positive ones. In an interview with Time magazine, neurobiology expert Matt Wilson said this ability might be a survival mechanism.

“The speculation is that we process memory in order to solve problems. And things we should learn from, things that are particularly important or that have strong emotions tied to them, may be things that are going to be important in the future. If you present stimuli with a strong negative emotional component, the memories do seem to be more easily retrieved than neutral stimuli or even those that are somewhat positive.”

And, it’s true, any reader would become reluctant to get too close to an entomologist after reading The Collector, and they would know to steer clear of boys bearing conches after reading The Lord of the Flies.

For all of their pain and despair, these books are as difficult to forget as they originally were to put down. And while we might try to break free from their spell, at least we know that there is no risk we will mistakenly pack them in our suitcases, only to discover that we have already read them. No, these books will become part of our own baggage, for better or worse. Once read, they remain. Reader, beware.

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