What Was Lost by Jean Levy review


How can you live if you’ve lost your memories?

Sarah has lost all her adult memories and can’t remember anything after the age of seven. She was discovered unconscious on a beach in Devon and, after three months in hospital, must learn how to rebuild her adult life. Her re-socialisation is isolating and confusing – she sees no one except her doctors, cleaning lady, and a sinister social worker. Slowly she learns how to do things again – driving, grocery shopping, answering the telephone, reading and writing. Before, in the time she can’t remember, Sarah was a successful children’s author of a series of Lost Stories. But she can’t even remember writing her books. Now, she is trapped in an enforced state of childlike loss and confusion as she tries to piece her life back together.

Beginning with a chance encounter with a mysteriously familiar man in the supermarket, Sarah begins to feel that her doctors are keeping her past from her. In fact she is part of a medical experiment investigating memories and if and how they can be retrieved. Something happened that caused her to lose her memories, but no one will tell her what it was, or how she was involved.

What Was Lost has many of the essential characteristics of psychological fiction but one of the many ways in which it stands out is through the believable and adroit way in which Sarah’s repatriation to life is presented. Levy really makes the reader consider how they would think and act if they lost everything and everyone they knew – even basic acts like dressing herself, how to put on make-up, how to run a bath have to be re-learned. In an especially hilarious scene Sarah buys herself porn magazines because she has no idea how to think about sex.

The psychological aspect of her repression and re-claiming of her thought and language faculties are similarly well done, and I especially like the considered way in which these are slowly and subtly introduced into the narrative as Sarah’s vocabulary, logic and reasoning powers expand again.

Sarah’s past, as a well-known children’s author (of the ironically titled series of Lost Stories), is told through flashbacks as her memories start to return. Her background and history are slowly revealed, along with the more sinister events that led up to her amnesia, and the reader pieces these together along with Sarah.

What Was Lost is a superbly written, tense and compelling narrative. Levy’s prose is deft and masterful as the truth about Sarah’s past and the incident that changed everything unfold. In its exploration of mental health, memory, and identity, and its publishing industry setting it distinguishes itself from the crowd.

What Was Lost by Jean Levy is out now from The Dome Press (9781999855963, p/b, £8.99)

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