"How many people have a chance to change something major in their lives without having to suffer the consequences?" That's the question asked of Emma Tupper in Forgotten, the latest novel from Montreal-based writer and lawyer Catherine McKenzie.
Emma is a 34-year-old lawyer who actually wasn't looking for an opportunity to make over her life. "I was happy then. Things weren't perfect, but still, I knew where I fit. I knew where I was going."
That was before Emma's trip to Africa, a voyage undertaken only because her mother's dying wish was for Emma to travel to the continent she herself had always wanted to go. So the career-minded Emma agreed to temporarily delay a partnership opportunity at her firm in exchange for vacation time to honour her mother's request.
And then Emma disappeared.
Returning home after illness and an earthquake turned her one-month safari into six months stranded in a remote village in Tswanaland, Emma finds she has been declared, "missing, presumed dead," and life has gone on without her. Her landlord has rented out her apartment and thrown out her things; her firm held a memorial service and gave away her office; and while her boyfriend Craig "knew" she was dead, he now doesn't believe she did everything she could to contact him while she was marooned.
As others advise her to "imagine the possibilities" this fresh start offers, Emma tries to get her life back in order. She takes an entry-level position at the same firm while sharing her old apartment with the new tenant, Dominic, a man dealing with upheaval in his own life and looking for his own ways to start over. Of course, being back at square one isn't easy, and the whole exercise soon has Emma wondering "why I ever wanted any part of my old life back."
Forgotten is McKenzie's third foray into what some detractors call chick lit, that vast, ill-defined dumping ground for novels written for women, by women. McKenzie does rely on many of the more popular tropes of the genre. Emma has the steadfast best friend, the nemesis/mean girl at the office ("pretty sure she's half devil spawn") and conflicted feelings about her boyfriend and the attractive stranger she's now sharing living space with. Plus the obligatory shopping scene.
The whole story also revolves around a fairly contrived set of circumstances that requires readers to suspend a certain degree of disbelief. Like Craig, one could question why Emma didn't make more of an effort to get in touch with people back home. And why does she throw herself at the mercy of the stranger renting her old apartment when her childhood home, now left to her, sits empty?
To her credit, McKenzie makes nods to the "stupid movie plot" aspects of her heroine's circumstances, as when Emma points out that others now hold her to some new standard of living her life to the fullest.
"You know, all those movies where someone has a near-death experience?
"And then they realize they always wanted to be a concert pianist or go sky-diving, and the guy who teaches them to jump from a plane is gorgeous and slightly lost, and they fall in love and live happily ever after."
The crux of Emma's problem, which illustrates McKenzie's gift for a darker humour is, as the character says, "I didn't even really have a near-death experience, unless people thinking you're dead counts as one."
Forgotten is a clever, satisfying diversion of a book, but where McKenzie really excels is in the pacing. Quick banter, the new challenges that spring up in Emma's path and the tension McKenzie creates between her characters send the reader headlong through the pages to see if Emma gets to live happily ever after, near-death experience or not.
Athena McKenzie is an editor at Zoomer magazine. She has never been to Africa, never had a near-death experience and to the best of her knowledge is no relation to the author.