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May 13, 2024

Review in Haiku: The Year of Fog

By Katrina Stonoff

Abby walks the beach.
Boyfriend's daughter vanishes
while she's distracted.

The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond is a haunting story that grabbed me by the throat and shook me until I could hardly breathe.

It's about a woman walking with her fiancé's daughter on a beach. She looks away for a second, and when she looks back, the little girl is gone. The book is (read these words with a dry, understated irony) very suspenseful.

I nearly asked my husband to read the last page and tell me whether or not the girl is found because I wasn't sure I could stand the suspense (I did manage to stand it, but barely). You have to appreciate, I hate it (HATE it!!) when someone spoils an ending for me. I never look ahead, much less read the last page before I get there. So the fact that I was nearly compelled to do so tells you just how suspenseful Year of Fog is.

I originally learned about Year of Fog from Southern Comfort, author Karin Gillespie's blog. Later, I heard it got great reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal, so when I saw it at my local, independent bookstore, I bought it.

Abby (the main character) is obsessed with the moments before 6-year-old Emma disappeared. She runs them over and over in her mind, sure there's an elusive detail there that will help them find Emma.

Which frankly is a bit nutty to me.

Pop quiz: You're walking along the ocean with a child. You look away, and when you look back, she's gone. Where did she go?

Answer: DUH! She's in the ocean, idiot. Start swimming!

Except Abby is certain Emma's not in the ocean, and for some unexplained, unfathomable reason, she's convinced Emma has been snatched and is still alive. So you have to question her sanity, or at least assume she's engaging in the sort of "magical thinking" that tends to follow a quick and shocking loss.

In her obsession to find Emma, Abby often repeats to herself, almost like a chant: "This is what I know. There is a girl. Her name is Emma. She is walking on a beach," but it changes slightly each time she says it. Such simple sentences. In fact, they're passive. But as a litany, to show an obsession, they are powerful indeed. More powerful than the best, most finely-drawn metaphor.

The mantra ("This is what I know...") is also a great way of showing the idiosyncrasy of memory. How and why humans lay memories down, and how accurate they are (or are not).

Last year, Time magazine ran an article that discussed the common experience of reliving traumatic moments over and over, but it said each time we relive them, we tweak the memory in small ways, and eventually we are remembering the many times we remembered the event rather than the event itself. And this process changes some of the details. There was a great photo illustration to make the point: two pictures of Bing Crosby that appeared to be identical, but on second glance, you saw many differences (including a completely different bow-tie).

Ironically, just this week, I have been having a conversation with a friend about memory. He's taking courses from the Landmark Forum, and among other things, they stress the "human tendency to collapse what happened with the story we tell about what happened" (emphasis mine). The "Fog" in Richmond's title is a good metaphor for the story we tell about what happened, the story that sometimes prevents us from seeing what actually did happen.

I love books that make me consider deeper philosophical questions like this.

Another ongoing theme in Year of Fog is photography and light, and how they work together. A professional photographer, Abby often considers how light can both make and ruin a photograph. And how the very act of taking a photograph is a vain attempt to stop time.

Year of Fog has it all: a story to compel you through the pages, and meaty questions to chew over for months afterward. This might be my favorite book of 2007.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-10-06
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