Imagine having a perfect memory. Being able to replay words, sounds, situations – from years ago. It’s all there, in your head, ready to be recalled. Great for exams when you were younger, but what about when something unpleasant happened to you, and it won’t ever go away? Nicola Walker has Hyperthymesia. She has been the subject of scientific studies and examinations, but her condition is what it is. Now, it’s 2020 and, at the age of 51, she has a humdrum job in London’s British Library. Sher marriage ended half a lifetime ago, and now she lives from day to day with only her cat for company. Until she receives an alarming telephone call.
The call is from a Metropolitan Police detective. Her former husband, Declan, has been arrested on suspicion of murdering his father, years earlier. And his only witness? Nicola and her perfect memory.
We are basically in two time zones. The present day, 2020, and a summer Sunday in June 1985, which is Arty Robbins’s 50th birthday. The event is being celebrated at a pub called The Mary Shelley, and the landlord is Arty’s father, Vincent. Nicola, aged 16, and Declan Robbins, aged 18, son of Arty, are ‘an item’. A list of the other characters is not something I normally compile, but it might be useful in this case.
Craig Walker, Nicola’s father
Susan Walker, Nicola’s mother
Dave Crane, friend of the Walkers. He married Susan after Craig’s death from cancer.
Kat Clarke, Nicola’s contemporary, and best friend. Her father Daniel, Arty Robbins’s brother, walked out on them years earlier.
Chloe Clarke, Kat’s mother
Gary Barclay, Kat’s boyfriend. They later marry.
Anne Robbins, wife of Arty, mother of Declan
Arthur Robbins is a pillar of the community. Successful estate agent, all-round diamond geezer and school governor. But then, he just disappears. He was last seen in the small hours on the night of his birthday party. Lost for 35 years – until his remains turn up in the foundations of a building being demolished to make way for a new development.
We have, in one sense, a traditional whodunnit, but it is unconventional insofar as the usual police work, while still taking place, is secondary to the agonising replays going on inside Nicky’s head. What did she see? Who did she see? Where were they? How do these memories stack up against the ticking clock on that warm summer night 35 years ago? Has she mis-remembered? What if she is shutting out some memories in order to protect someone she loves? There’s no shortage of suspects, as the real Arty Robbins is far from the jovial character he pretends to be.
The killer of Arty Robbins is eventually unmasked, and SK Sharp leads us down many a blind alley as the narrative unfolds, and Nicola finally completes the jigsaw of her memories. It’s clever stuff, and gripping – I read it in two enjoyable sessions – but for me, the strength of the novel is the relationship between Declan and Nicola, both then and now. I don’t remember a more sensitive and perceptive account of teenagers falling in love with each other, but the most moving and effective counterpoint to this is how it all plays out, decades later, with so much water under the bridge, so much hurt, so many mistakes and so much misunderstanding.
This is a fine novel, a thriller, yes, but full of compassion and telling insights into what people do to each other, and how secrets corrode trust. I Know What I Saw was first published in October 2020 by Cornerstone Digital. This paperback edition is from Arrow, and is out now.
SK Sharp (aka Stephen Deas) is on Twitter