Review by Tess Tabak
Peng Shepherd’s Book of M is a tour de force, a grim-yet-hopeful speculative fiction novel with many parallels for the current coronavirus pandemic. The characters in the book grapple with their own mysterious pandemic: a wave of people throughout the globe suddenly begin losing their shadows, and no one understands why. With the loss of a shadow inevitably comes total memory loss.
The book covers vast material in its 485 pages – the book takes place over the course of about two years – but it centers on a relatively small cast of characters. The central figures include a couple, Max and Ory, who have been living in hiding together at a resort since the start of the pandemic. There is also an amnesiac, who suffered complete retrograde amnesia shortly before the pandemic struck, and who may be key to finding a cure.
More than just losing their memory, something far stranger happens to the victims of the Forgetting. They become imbued with magical powers. If they forget something, whatever they imagine in its place becomes reality. A wife who forgets her husband may cause him to disappear, for example. Shepherd deliberately keeps the scope of the supernatural powers vague throughout the course of the book. While there is some amount of internal logic, the “rules” of the magic is not the focus here. Rather we’re intimately following the aftermath for our characters, the pain and emotional anguish of watching their loved ones forget who they are, or knowing that you’re being stripped of everything that makes you who you are.
I’m going to be honest: if you’re an escapist reader, this is not an easy book to get through right now. I started it in early May, when real-life apocalyptic feelings were peaking, and I had to put it down for long stretches at a time. Between screen-induced ADHD and an aversion to reading cripplingly sad apocalypse stories, it took me months to finish this book. That said, Shepherd is a very talented author and never once did I think about abandoning it. I had to know what happened to the characters, and I enjoyed the read even though I also found it hard to face. This is the perfect book for anyone craving a twisted, funhouse mirror version of our present reality. It’s a gripping and intensely weird story. Shepherd paints the diverse cast of characters so realistically they feel like people from her own life. It speaks to her talent of empathy that she’s able to capture people from so many different personality types and walks of life so well. The text is textured with personal history and moments of inside information – a phrase Max and Ory keep repeating to one another as a sign that their memory isn’t fading is “Blue, fifty-two,” a reference to the first night they met. Another main character, Naz, is an Olympic archery hopeful from Tehran who gets stranded in America when the pandemic shuts down global travel. She is alone and scared, a continent and impossible distance apart from her mother and sister.
If you’re looking for a gutting page-turner, look no further than the Book of M. This is her first novel. Shepherd’s second novel, The Cartographers- expected fall 2021.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.