The Man Who Forgot His Wife John O’Farrell

Doubleday, pp.309, 14.99

I read this novel while convalescing from pneumonia. It proved admirably fit for purpose. A light diet, mildly entertaining and with enough twists and turns of plot to serve as a tonic.

John O’Farrell is a man of many parts — comedy scriptwriter (Spitting Image, Alas Smith and Jones), political satirist (An Utterly Exasperating History of Modern Britain) and bestselling novelist. The Man Who Forgot his Wife is his fourth.

The protaganist, Vaughan, hasn’t just forgotten his wife, he’s forgotten everything. Travelling on the underground one fine October afternoon, he suddenly finds his memory has been ‘wiped’ (more computer references to follow) and staggers into a hospital where a consultant neurologist, with more enjoyment than empathy, diagnoses a ‘psychogenic fugue’ — a ‘flight’ from his previous life, ‘possibly triggered by extreme stress’.

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The last novel I read in which amnesia was central was Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass, which has more wit and subtlety than O’Farrell’s book but which (fair’s fair) is not so suitable for convalesence. Both novels make me think that amnesia is to fiction what metaphor is to poetry — an invaluable tool. Amnesia allows a writer to work backwards, so that what might have been a rather tedious bildungsroman is given much more suspense by a character in a temporal limbo recovering his past bit by backflashing bit.  

And then there’s the fun one can have — and O’Farrell has a lot — with identity. Vaughan’s hospital ward pal suggests he might have been a serial killer or a drug dealer. His ghastly, blokey mate, Gary, is forever cracking jokes like ‘remember you owe me two grand’, while neglecting to give him such important biographical back-story as the fact that although his mother is dead, his father is still alive. Just.

Vaughan’s attempt to make sense of his life depends on the occasional recovered memory plus the memories — mostly unreliable — of friends and relations who of course all see things from different angles. Vaughan was/is a history teacher, so you can guess where this is leading. Is there any truth anywhere? ‘We all put our own angle on everything that happens to us … history is just old spin’, Vaughan tells his class.

That’s by-the-by really. The main thrust of the novel is that Vaughan arrives in his fugue state at the realisation that he is about to divorce his wife, Madeleine. Seeing her, anew so to speak, he falls immediately in love and sets about trying to reclaim both wife and children. There’s a couple of implausible court scenes and an almost compulsory false memory syndrome.

No one suffers too much, but you get to think about the vagaries of memory quite a lot.

I enjoyed the play with technology.  Vaughan creates a Wikipedia site for himself, which various friends use to make up stories about him. It occurs to me that as long as one hangs on to one’s name (tattooed on a buttock perhaps), many of us could find some version of the past by Googling ourselves. I’m pleased to note that on the bookmarking bar of my Apple, my website is marked as ‘me’. That should help.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Fiction, Novel, Novelists