Everything I Don’t Remember

Jonas Hassen Khemiri

Scribner, £8.99

Review: Alastair Mabbott

DIVIDED into short segments, in which it’s not always immediately apparent who is speaking, Everything I Don’t Remember mimics the format of non-fiction books which explore their subject entirely through transcribed interviews. The mystery that Jonas Hassen Khemiri is probing here is a puzzle of his own devising, but he’s also highlighting larger themes of perception, truth, subjectivity and how deeply we can ever know another person.

Khemiri wastes no time scene-setting, and we have to pick everything up as we go along. What we learn is that a young Swedish man, Samuel, has died in a car crash. The question is whether his death was an accident or suicide. The interviewees the author has lined up include Laide, Samuel’s girlfriend for a year, and Vandad, his friend and flatmate, who has criminal connections and possibly a stronger crush on Samuel than he’d like to admit. Both are heavily emotionally invested in the story, are defensive and jealous of each other and their versions of Samuel could almost be different people at times.

However greatly their memories may differ, all agree that Samuel was quite an unusual person, who intrigued his friends. “Samuel actively tried to seek out new experiences, but he was completely incapable of enjoying anything. The more he talked about depositing things in his Experience Bank, the emptier he seemed.” Always on the go, he gets swept up with enthusiasms, as if he’s the first person to discover them. It’s not hard to imagine that he’s overcompensating for some basic insecurity. Like a lot of people who are unsure of their identity, Samuel seems to display different facets of himself depending on who he’s with, which makes the task of reaching any conclusion about him doubly difficult. For good measure, Khemiri also presents us with an unnamed interviewer/author who had his own personal reasons for taking on this assignment, and may not be entirely reliable either.

Whoever Samuel really was underneath, memory played an important part in his life, and we’re left with an uncomfortable feeling that it contributed to his death too. The young man who “listens without listening” envies people with good recall, and it troubles him greatly that his grandmother is being robbed of her memories by dementia. In a significant scene, he pours a glass of water over himself so that his girlfriend will always associate him with water, and thus never forget him. After his death, he is reconstructed from memories, but imperfect and false.

Set against a background of immigration and racism in Sweden (the main characters all have non-Swedish forebears, Laide translates for refugees and Samuel works at the Migrations Board), this isn’t really a mystery novel but a clever character study, eloquently making the point that attempting to establish the truth can sometimes lead only into a hall of mirrors. But it’s not without emotional weight. Laide’s description of their happy coupledom, the intensity of Vanand’s friendship with Samuel and Samuel’s own tender concern for his grandmother are all made more precious by their fragility and untimely curtailment.