Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 337
Peng Shepherd’s novel has elements of the classic dystopian novel as well as the psychological thriller. The Book of M addresses troubling issues that affect millions of individuals in real life but expands the scale to the entire planet and links the occurrences to fantastic phenomena. Memory loss, from causes ranging from head trauma to Alzheimer’s disease, is a common medical condition. The author pairs it with a real but rare phenomenon, zero shadow loss, that occurs for a few minutes in the India location where she places it. The combination of these phenomena and the great extension of their range becomes a central premise that carries through the whole book.
Shepherd quite obviously and self-consciously locates her topics within a large body of literature concerned with similar themes. The broad scale of the affliction and its quick onset suggest parallels to novels about epidemics, notably Albert Camus’s The Plague and Jose Saramago’s Blindness, or abrupt inexplicable changes, such as Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers. Jorge Luis Borges famously profiled “Funes the Memorious,” a man fated never to forget anything, while memory loss is a side effect of an insomnia epidemic in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; that novel features people obsessively labeling objects with their functions and related tasks, as Shepherd’s characters do. Another obvious debt is to Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, with a questing hero whose shadow takes on a life of its own.
The importance of memory as an aspect of human connection emerges strongly within Shepherd’s work, as vanishing memory affects people within a relationship quite differently. The deeply felt bond between the protagonists, Orlando and Max, both encourages them to stay together and compels Ory to leave in hopes of finding the underlying reason that might in turn offer a cure. Thus the connection with recent and contemporary epidemics, including AIDS and Ebola, reminds the reader of the uneven burden wrought by hope and despair.