A far younger Val Emmich makes a brief appearance in Tina Fey’s 30 Rock one fine episode, and that is how it strikes me why he is extra cute; it is because I have seen him before. He is the writer of The Reminders, a novel I chose to review not because it was excessively brilliant or keenly incisive about life’s techniques, the way one could say Middlemarch is, but because if you pick it up, you don’t mind not putting it down till it’s over. In other words, it draws you in.

It is a sincerely privileged, unpretentious account of a little girl’s unusual friendship with a grieving man. It does justice to the digital age it is set in without annoyingly clinging to its tenets; there are no printed accounts of SMS conversations or Facebook dialogues. In fact, these things don’t come up at all. The closest you get is a mention of Twitter, but that’s all you get. No tweet is reprinted, no literary sanctity violated. Whew.

Lennon lovin’

To start again: meet Joan Lennon. She has a last name, Sully, but to this she doesn’t assign much worth. To her, the fact that her musician father is a devoted worshipper of John Lennon means there is an inherent, hereditary approval in loving Lennon herself, in “carrying forward the legacy.” Towards the end, when asked if she loves Lennon because she loves Lennon or because her dad loves him, Joan is unable to tell the difference. Fun fact: she hates the music of Billy Joel and Bob Dylan.

But that’s just a fun fact. Here’s a funner fact (not really, because it makes Joan miserable quite often.) Little Joan Lennon has a rare mental condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), where she can remember every single day of her life so far (from age five onwards, that is) in perfect, Technicolour detail. She is one among the 30-and-odd people in the world who possess this ability, and she is the youngest of them all: 10 years old.

Joan is introduced to her father’s old bandmate and the current toast of television, Gavin Winters. He has recently made things toasty for his neighbours by setting his furniture on fire in his backyard. In a swift escape from the media, Gavin seeks sanctuary with Joan’s folks.

Incidentally, why did Gavin play the Joker on his own property? Because he is trying to destroy all memories of his late lover, Sydney Brennett, who was also good friends with Joan’s family. Sydney has died, presumably of a stroke or an aneurysm, a few months ago, and Gavin has been shaken out of his existence, to say the least. Things look tough for Gavin as he tries to cope, but when he accidentally learns (thanks to Joan’s photographic memory) that Sydney had been keeping something from him, he is stirred into action.

The art of remembering

Remember The God of Small Things? (Of course you remember.) Part of the reason it was so endearing was because Arundhati Roy had ample space and scope to write with the eyes of a child. This ample space and scope, obviously, is but another indicator of her calibre as a writer, and the same is to be said for Emmich. He alternates his chapters, writing first as Joan and then as Gavin, and it is no surprise that the Joan chapters are the ones that make you tear up. It is because she is a little girl. Who wouldn’t cry?

I read The Reminders on the Duronto, from Mumbai to Calcutta. It was strange for such an outlandish idea to be so pertinent, the fact that there are people who can do what I wish I could do, and they’re tired of it, sick of it, they hate it, even as I continue to wish I had what they did. I don’t care if the things I’m recollecting are good or bad, sad or happy. I want to remember.

And I want to remember in this incredibly precise, legalistic fashion, as if my brain is my attorney and can save me, with this evidence, in a court of flaw. I slept like a baby – while the actual baby in the compartment cried – the whole time, but I read this novel in between. And even though the plot was cheesy, and the writing occasionally trying too hard, I had a good time with this book.

A professor of mine once said, “Yes, keep literary value in mind, keep your Ibsens and your Eliots close. But also think, given where you are and how you live: you’re standing in an airport bookstore, with time to kill. Your degree isn’t completely wasted on you, so you don’t opt to fall for clickbait. You choose to buy a book. And you do buy a book in that bookstore. Would you or would you not like to write that book you just bought?”

Val Emmich’s book is that book you would certainly buy at the bookstore. It’s the book you would certainly borrow from the library, and it’s the book you would certainly gift someone on their birthday. It’s popular and cheesy and has plenty of heart and only white people in it, but it’s a book with a working brain and a great little 10-year-old, and the bottom line is, if you’re travelling, go read The Reminders. It’ll remind you of everything you left behind.

The Reminders, Val Emmich, Little, Brown and Company