The possible unreliability of memory is one of those plot hooks that will catch my interest every time. Give me a story about amnesia, lost memory, or conflicting memories, and I’ll at least consider giving it a try. Add in a World War II English setting and a cold-case mystery, and I’m in.
Robert Barnard’s novel Out of the Blackout begins with a 5-year-old boy on a train of evacuees who come to the country town of Yeasdon to escape the London air raids. The boy says his name is Simon Thorn, but that name doesn’t appear on any of the lists; there’s no record at all of his existence. The street where he says he lived can’t be found. The Cutheridges, a childless couple whose evacuee had ended up staying in London, take him in and listen to his pained cries in the night, and they quietly hope that he’ll stay with them for good.
Years later, having lived out his whole childhood in Yeasdon, Simon returns to London for work and finds himself on strangely familiar ground. He discovers where he used to live and decides that he wants to learn where he came from. Why couldn’t his family be found? Why did he put that time so thoroughly out of his mind? Why did no one come looking for him? Which of his memories are real? And what has he chosen to forget? He looks back at the child he was and tries to remember why he did what he did:
He was conscious that for the first month at Yeasdon he had had a nagging feeling of guilt at deceiving the Cutheridges. Could a child that young feel guilt? Perhaps that was the first dawning of a moral awareness, Foolish, of course, to feel guilty now. What was done was surely done on orders, or at least under influence too strong for a mere child to resist. And he had half understood that the Cutheridges had wanted to be deceived. But looking back, he could feel kinship with that guilty child—ingratiating himself, deceiving, suffering guilt.
The book shifts quickly from mulling over memory to being a more straightforward investigative story, but one in which the investigator has a personal stake in the answer. Simon interviews neighbors, pores over newspaper clippings, and eventually finds the people he believes to be his family. He tries to get close to them without revealing who he is. Gradually, he starts to put together a tragic and horrifying story that he is convinced is accurate, but he cannot know without drawing it out of this family. The central mystery of Simon’s past is not so full of twists and gimmicks as to be ridiculous, but there are enough surprises and misdirection to satisfy.
The cleverly done mystery was my favorite aspect of the book. The psychological angle never quite reached the level of complexity I enjoy so much in the work of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. For psychological crime and mystery novels, she remains the gold standard. The characters here are not badly drawn, but they don’t have that much depth to them. However, I still enjoyed the book a great deal. It was a quick read, and I eagerly gulped it down.