This review was originally published in The Star on 17th October, 2017.
By Felicia Yap
Publisher: Wildfire, too many pages
IMAGINE a world in which people’s memories go no further back than two days? Considering that I rarely remember what I’ve had for breakfast let alone what happened two days ago, this is not a scenario that sounds particularly unique to me.
But jokes aside, I approached Felicia Yap’s novel, Yesterday, with great anticipation because of the hoopla surrounding its acquisition: eight agents fought to represent Yap; the bidding war over her manuscript culminated in Headline Publishing Group paying a six-figures sum for it; and, as of December 2016, translation rights to the book had been sold to 11 countries. No wonder Newsweek predicted that Yesterday would be a 2017 “literary event” – naturally, I looked forward to reading it.
Sadly, I found the book disappointing.
In Yesterday, the world is inhabited by Monos (they remember yesterday) and Duos (they remember yesterday and the day before yesterday). Duos are considered superior to Monos, and mixed marriages are rare, but Mark Evans, a Cambridge-educated Duo and successful novelist and wannabe Conservative MP, is married to Claire, a Mono who was a waitress when she first met him.
We learn, right off the bat, that Mark and Claire’s union is far from successful, but it disintegrates totally following the discovery of a body in the River Cam, not far from the couple’s home. It appears that the corpse is of one Sophia Ayling. Subsequently, we learn that she is Mark’s mistress. This fact is revealed in Sophia’s iDiary, a device (created by Steve Jobs, the Duo CEO of Apple) into which everyone in that world is legally obliged to record the details of their lives.
Monos and Duos lose their long-term memory at 18 and 23 respectively. This loss is caused by a surge in the levels of a protein that inhibits memory. Without long-term memory, daily diary entries are the only way people are able to keep track of their lives. Studying the details of your life diligently will transfer the information permanently into your brain, but studies show that a maximum of only 70% of the information in their diaries may be retained by an individual. And what happens when people record lies about themselves?
I’m assuming that what you know about yourself before you lose your long-term memory is permanent. I’m assuming that Duos remember what they learn to earn their university degrees. Also, what did people do before the advent of written language; or before education was widely available; or, indeed, before information could be stored in microchips? How did this civilisation advance, technologically, at the same rate as ours despite having such a handicap? What are things like outside the UK depicted in this book?
It’s a sketchy world that Mark, Claire and Sophia live in, one that Yap is obviously not that interested in building.
She certainly doesn’t address the above questions and many more that I feel would occur to any thoughtful and perceptive reader. The only question that interests the author is the one she has mentioned, in at least two high profile interviews, as being the basis of her book: “How do you solve a murder when you can only remember yesterday?”
The thing is, when you’re solving a murder, you wouldn’t rely on your memory anyway, no matter how good it is.
Instead, you’d do whatever is required, same as if your memory wasn’t restricted to the day before: ask the relevant questions, read the clues correctly, make the right connections between everything, and, through it all, make copious and detailed notes.
Detective Chief Inspector Hans Richardson, a Mono masquerading as a Duo, does all of the above, and I think the story would have worked better if it had been told solely from his perspective. Instead, the entire first-person, present-tense, (unreliable) narrative switches from Claire to Mark to the Detective to Sophia and back again, with, as the story progresses, barely a difference in the four voices. There are also the characters’ diary entries and newspaper clippings (to provide some sorely lacking information about this alternate world in which they live).
The first quarter of the book is a quick read, but the style gets repetitive and boring after that, and the wooden, cliché-ridden and unlikely dialogue and over-writing doesn’t help. A couple of examples:
“‘Someone murdered Miss Ayling,’ he says with a growl, his face inches away from mine. ‘I sense it in my bones, even though my deputy thinks it was suicide.’”
“‘But the writing was on the wall,’ I say, unable to stop my voice from choking. ‘The facts were there from day one, Em. Mark’s not to be trusted.’”
Worst of all is how unappealing Yap’s characters are. They are predictable stereotypes: philandering rake of a husband; sniveling, downtrodden wife; hardboiled detective; sexy femme fatale. We don’t get close to any of them; never understand their motives and thought processes. Oh, we are told why they do this and that, but it’s like reading a comic with stick figure characters – all too basic and shallow to feel real.
Who killed Sophia Ayling? I didn’t care. Was Mark and Claire’s marriage doomed? Why would that interest me? Would DCI Richardson’s Mono status be revealed? I felt zero concern. I had to force myself to continue to the end, and I was quite shocked by what was finally revealed, including what was supposedly the big, shocking twist, because of how hokey and unlikely it all was. I really was reminded of the totally bonkers and extreme plots cooked up by my creative writing students who are under 10.
Six figures? If I were Headline, I’d ask for my money back.