Dome Press 13th September 2018
Something terrible has happened to successful children’s writer Sarah, but she doesn’t know what it is. All she knows is that it was enough to wipe her mind of memories. Without her past she is lost, friendless, her life reduced to the protected one of a child. Specialists tell her that she must retrieve her memory of what bought her to be found unconscious on a beach miles from her London home. And the police are interested too.
A chance encounter in the supermarket, with a man who seems strangely familiar, gives Sarah hope. But perhaps some things are best left forgotten.
Well, what to say about this book. Ok, I’ll start with a confession, while I really liked the premise of this book it felt rather long at 449 pages. Then to my dismay I started it and found the beginning really quite slow, and thought to myself, ‘this might be a struggle’. But then, 70 pages in everything changed and this book became unputdownable, I became completely engrossed and found myself flying past the half way point on my second day reading. By day 3 I knew I had to just finish the book, I needed to know what happened!
So what’s it all about I hear you ask! The story begins with Sarah waking in hospital, written in the first person, it transpires that Sarah has significant memory impairments, which she and we know very little about. She is monitored closely and her life is fairly narrow. I think this accounts for the slow start, in hindsight the book is well introduced and this build up is important but I was left unclear about what was going on and feeling somewhat impatient. As the story progressed, the mystery became clearer in terms of what may have occurred and more specifically what Sarah was experiencing but this book continued to keep me guessing throughout.
A slow burner of a read perhaps, but with a strong plot and well developed characters I found this book gripping. Extremely well written and an impressive debut the story is paced alongside Sarah’s medical treatment, which may not always be in her best interests. However her condition is unique and her medical team don’t claim to know absolutely what is for the best and how to help Sarah regain her lost memories. There are secrets aplenty in this story, which all serve to add to the overall mystery which is incredibly well done.
A highly recommended read from me and one you might want to set aside some dedicated reading hours for – once you start it’s hard to stop!
A first for me and so very exciting – hopefully for you too! Jean Levy has kindly agreed to do a Q & A especially for my blog! I hope you enjoy!
Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing this book? It is an incredibly comprehensive piece of fiction and I wonder how much research was required and how long the characters were in your head before becoming formed into this novel?
There’s quite a long, discontinuous story attached to this novel. When I finally decided to abandon years of churning out academic texts (genetic engineering, medical research … and a little psychology) in favour of writing fiction, I felt that I needed to be de-brainwashed and went back to Uni to read English and Creative Writing. An early assignment was to write three opening chapters of a novel. Definitely in at the deep end. Anyway, I conjured up a woman who had lost all her adult memories and was suddenly caught up in a spiral of infatuation with a really handsome guy she bumped into in a supermarket. It was an apple-related incident. And that was when Sarah began. But that was also where her story paused, because there were other assignments. Three years later I started an MA in Creative Writing and was required to submit 35,000 words of a linear narrative, so I dusted down my pile of creativity in search of inspiration and came across Sarah. That’s when her story really began. By the time I had the 35,000 words her predicament had evolved into the central plot of What Was Lost.
With that in mind how long did it take to plan and write What Was Lost?
I finished the MA and filed my certificate, but I continued to be obsessed with the lives I had created. I rehearsed their conversations as I drove, wandered around Islington looking for somewhere for Sarah to live. I researched defects in memory, and spent a lot of time staring into the distance playing mental videos of Sarah’s days. And over the next two years, between doing linguistics research (I’d staggered into narrative temporality during my English degree), I wrote and rewrote and, very soon, my characters, Sarah in particular, took over the writing. That’s the magic of fiction.
Is memory formation and amnesia a subject of particular interest to you?
I’ve always been interested in memory, how you process experiences as worthy of remembering, how you remember irrationally some things and forget others, or how a photograph, a piece of music, a fragrance can evoke memories that might have been forgotten. I’ve always had quite a ‘good’ memory but a few years back, following a general anaesthetic, I started to realise that I’d forgotten a whole chunk of my past that not even photographs could help me remember. It was unnerving. That lost time. So, when I started to research time in narrative, memory was inevitably a consideration: storytelling requires remembering what has gone before. But remembering past experiences also enables expectation, anticipation of plot developments. In fact, being able to finish a sentence requires remembering what you’ve already said/written. So, yes, I’m really interested in memory at all levels.
How many hours a day do you write for and do your have any strategies for sitting down to write, staying focussed and getting the job done as it were?
I can write anywhere, anytime: in the car, on a plane, in the bath, in the waiting room at the dentist. I don’t need a glass of wine, background music, toast and marmite (only occasionally), or a table not covered in chaos:
I write whenever I can sometimes to the exclusion of most everything else. I’ve occasionally written through the night and only realised it’s morning when somebody brings me a cup of tea. My family and friends just roll their eyes and let me get on with it. Sometimes I forget to eat … my husband has become very good at scrambling eggs since I gave up academic writing.
How did you celebrate finishing writing this book?
I finished the book several times: a first draft to submit to agents; a major rewrite from third to first person following a discussion with my agent; more retrospective inserts following requests to know more about Sarah’s eventful past. Of course, I already knew her entire past. In fact, I’d already written most of those retrospective pieces (as well as her LOST stories of Raggedy Lyme), so adding retrospection was easy. But I suppose the book wasn’t really finished until the Publisher said we were good to go and the postman handed me my proof copy of What Was Lost. I was home alone at the time, so I spent a few moments staring mindlessly into the air in front of me, then I grabbed a bottle of prosecco and drove over to my daughter’s to show my grandson, who is my most devoted fan. He’s nine and he actually put his iPad down for a whole five minutes. They were good moments.
Is there a second book in the pipeline? Can you tell us anything about this or do we need to wait and see?
Yes, there is. There’s a woman, whose life is a disaster. There’s a guy. In fact, there are several guys. There are lies discovered and more lies not yet discovered. And it all starts with a rain storm in a forest. And a body in a shallow, watery grave.
Huge thanks to Jean for such detailed and insightful answers – and a teaser for the next book – how exciting!
Jean spent several years in genetics research before abandoning the laboratory to pursue a career in academic publishing both in Holland the UK. She has been a database trouble- shooter, an editor, and a writer for publishing houses, pharmaceutical companies and the EU. She has degrees in Botany, Pathology, Philosophy, English, Law and Creative Writing and is currently completing a doctorate in Linguistics.
In her spare time she has campaigned for the environment and read a lot of books, the most memorable being Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, everything by Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, and a few things by Sebastian Faulks, Calvino, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell and Shakespeare.
She currently lives in a converted barn in the South Downs with her husband and a Heritage Plant Collection, accumulates Christmas tree decorations and aspires to writing multi-genre fiction, travelling on the Orient Express and seeing the Northern Lights.
This is a blog tour so do check the posts below and support this tour while also seeing what others are saying about What Was Lost.
Many Thanks to Emily at Dome Press for organising this tour, inviting me to be involved and providing me with a copy of the book. Thank you again to Jean Levy for answering my questions ( and of course writing this brilliant book!) and as always thank you to everyone taking the time to visit my blog and read this post.