Book review: How to be Remembered by Michael Thompson

Allen & Unwin Book Publishers)

It’s a talented writer indeed who can take an appealing out-there premise and invest it with so much humanity that you forget how extraordinary the bedrock narrative of the novel is, consumed only the affectingly real story with which you have been gifted.

The consummately good writer in this instance is Michael Thompson, whose novel, How to be Remembered, pivots on the fantastical idea that the protagonist, Tommy Llewellyn, is fated to be forgotten on his birthday, 5th January, by everyone who knows him.

While he sleeps, people forget they know him, everything he has accumulated in the past year simply vanishes into thin air, and he left unknown, unloved, unrecognised in what he terms a “Reset”, a curious quirk of his mortality which wipes the slate clean for him without fail each and every twelve months.

Some of us plagued with mistakes aplenty and regrets by the score might see this as a blessed boon, a chance to move on towards new existentially green pastures, unburdened by accumulated errors of living.

But Tommy, blighted by the loss of everything and everyone doesn’t see it in quite those terms, carrying the burden of loving people and being loved back, of belonging and having profound connection, only to have it all disappear in the ticking of a cold and callous clock.

Inside, Tommy slept. In fact, he slept through much of his first birthday. He dreamt of his mum and his dad, who weren’t dreaming of him. And when he woke, he cried out for them. But they didn’t come.

It begins with his parents on his first birthday with Leo and Elise Palmer waking up on their first child’s birthday oblivious to the fact they have even begun a family.

They call the police and so begins their son’s life in institutional care, thankfully at a place called Milkwood House aka the Dairy, where the loving Miss Michelle ensures Tommy is loved and cared for in a way his forgetful parents are never able to manage.

Of course Miss Michelle forgets who Tommy is too, year after year, but he quickly finds ways as he gets old enough to ensure that while he has to start all over on his birthday, that he doesn’t have to lose his home or his friends.

Sure, he has to start all over again but he quickly learns he has no choice but to keep bouncing back because the universe is going to enact the Reset whether he’s resentful of it or not, and so, in the face of a bizarre life condition, Tommy somehow, most of the time at least, manages to retain his optimism and sunny can-do attitude.

He has plenty of dark moments, and to be honest you wonder how he doesn’t have a whole lot more, but cognisant of the fact that he has to go with the Reset and make the best of it because it will happen whether he’s ready to roll with it or not, he keeps putting one foot in front of the other.

Somehow in the midst of this weirdest of life blights, Tommy makes firm friends, falls in love and even begins to carve out am ambitious career, and while the Reset means he has to come up with ever more inventive ways to hold onto what he’s got – multiple layers of clothes and money stuffed into underwear are just two of the methods he employs; the only things that stay with him are things directly and constantly in contact with him – he becomes determined, especially with he falls in love at the tender age of fourteen, not to be completely bested by the strange events of his birthday.

It’s meeting and falling for Carey, who doesn’t always stay in his orbit, and who forgets Tommy far more times than he’d like, or often can endure, that makes Tommy think about what really matters to him – rolling with the punches and making the best of a strange situation or fighting back as best he can and holding onto the people who really matter to him.

The brilliance of Thompson’s approach is that How to be Remembered never once feels gimmicky, a victim of a too-clever, vibrantly intriguing premise; rather at every stage of this breathtakingly original story, you feel every last sliver of emotion, every significant loss, every great joy and the exhaustion that comes from having to effectively start your life all over again every year.

Tommy is wonderfully goodhearted and unfailingly, tenaciously optimistic – and even when he’s not, again quite understandably, he bounces back far quicker than you think he might – but his annual test of wills with the universe does take its toll and Thompson lets that run its course in ways that move you to a considerable degree.

Tommy didn’t respond. He was seething; his long-buried dislike of Richie, an antipathy he’d felt from a time before he could remember, was still threatening to burst out. And if it did, other things would come out too, all the things he kept hidden away. He wanted to tell Carey how he’d known her for years, and had hated Richie for even longer. He wanted her to know that he too had been a resident of the house behind them. He wanted to point to the garden bed and shout, I planted that! He wanted them all to hear it. He wanted someone to remember him. He opened his mouth, but the words caught in his throat; if he started to speak, he wouldn’t stop.

This is real life packaged up in an extraordinary premise, and Thompson executes on it beautifully.

In fact, there are so many times you forget how bizarre the basis of Tommy’s life is because all you see is one very likeably optimistic person, who by any measure should be bitter and twisted (but miraculously, he is not) getting up again and again to forge the life he wants against some very weird and insistently thieving odds.

You could point to any number of people who do the same when life rains down crap on them from a considerable height but in Tommy’s case, it is, in the first part of his life at least, happening against a scorched earth life where all the things that matter and the touchstones we used to orient ourselves such as family & friends, career and romantic love, simply vanish in one night.

And yet Tommy gets up and keeps on going, with How to be Remembered emerging as a beautiful life lesson, without a hint of harsh judgmental insistence or thunderingly overwrought messaging, on holding fast to what truly matters to you no matter what comes against you.

Our wonderful warm and lovely protagonist has more reason than most to give up, but he doesn’t, and it’s a credit to Thompson that How to be Remembered always feels like a real and grounded tale and not something weirdly strange and fantastical, all because, Reset aside, Tommy is all of us to one extent or another, and we would do well to pay attention to the importance lessons he teaches us.

Hold fast to those you love, let yourself mourn what you lose but be glad for that which you retain, never give up no matter how dark things might get, and remember that your fate is in your hands, whatever the universe may throw at you, and that you need to ask yourself what matters most – what you leave behind, or what you take with you into the future which is, as always, what you make it.

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