Review | In the Dark We Forget, by Sandra S.G. Wong

InTheDarkCoverA woman wakes up on the side of a highway with no memory of who is and how she got there. The mystery of her identity is solved pretty quickly: with the help of a local RCMP officer, she learns her name is Cleo Li and she has a younger brother named Cass. But then a bigger mystery arises: their parents are missing, last seen close to where Cleo regained consciousness, and their mom’s winning $47M lottery ticket may have something to do with the disappearance. As the investigation progresses, Cleo learns of some recent strains on her relationship with her parents, and she has to figure out, how much does she really want to remember about what actually happened?

In the Dark We Forget is a twisty and fascinating mystery. I loved learning along with Cleo about who she was before the attack, and why someone may have motive for wanting to harm her. Cleo is an unreliable narrator, partly because of the memory loss, but also partly because she hides things from other characters and there are hints that she may also be hiding things from us, the readers. The ending, and particularly the last couple of pages, seem to hint at a final reveal, but then the book ends without actually confirming anything. I admit I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings in general, but this one in particular annoyed me. Given the languid, meticulous pacing and intricate detail of most of the book, something about the narration made the last few chapters feel vague and the reveals challenging to pin down. So when the final two reveals were told with such narrative distance that it’s even harder to grasp what they actually meant, I just found it frustrating.

The book does shine in how it explores the Lis’ family dynamics, and the experiences of being an Asian woman in Canada. I love how the author explores the instinctive trust and recognition of shared experiences between Cleo and Aoki, a Japanese-Canadian RCMP officer assigned to the case. Cleo feels an immediate comfort with Aoki even before she remembers her own heritage (Chinese). There are a few wonderful scenes exploring the racism the two women face, like when Aoki is assigned to be a liaison because of their “shared heritage” and Cass rightly snarks that he and Cleo are Chinese and Aoki is Japanese. Or when another RCMP officer asks Cleo about witnesses saying Cleo often had an angry tone when speaking to her mother, and when Cleo points out none of the witnesses speak Cantonese and may have misinterpreted the tone, the officer retorts, “Isn’t Cantonese a tonal language?” which is a total misunderstanding of what ‘tonal’ means in that context.

Probably my favourite is how the novel calls out the stereotypes faced by Asian women. In an early scene, when speaking of other (likely white and male) RCMP officers taking on the case, Aoki tells Cleo,

Once any of those big strapping lads gets one look at pretty little Chinese you, they’ll be falling all over themselves to help you. I mean, even I feel protective, and I should know better than to jump to conclusions. No, I mean it. They’re conditioned to see us as vulnerable and helpless, right? That’s how Asian women get…fetishized in our society. Demure and meek and all that. [6%]

Later, the dark side of this stereotype plays out in real time, when a suspect in Cleo’s attack accuses her of faking sweetness and innocence and putting on a ‘damsel in distress’ act. First, it’s patently untrue in that scene, where Cleo is in genuine distress at being in the same room with this person. But also, this is incredibly loaded language to describe Asian women, and when it happens, one can almost hear the echo of Aoki’s words from earlier in the novel.

I also love the relationship arc between Cleo and her brother. It’s complex, emotional, and messy… in short, just like a real family relationship, and I love how they pull through for each other even when they fight.

One snag in the character development piece for me is that by Cass’s own admission, Cleo’s personality seemed to have done a complete 180 after the attack. From her conversations with Aoki and Cass, it seems implied that she can choose to keep this new and improved version of herself moving forward. Which, fine, that’ll be nice. But it also felt unrealistic to me. People in her workplace literally feared and hated her before the attack, because she was super shady in her dealings. And while the attack may have rocked her enough to make her a bit more open about her vulnerability, it seems unlikely that whatever caused her behaviour before the attack would have gone away completely. It seems more realistic that we would have seen more glimpses of that side of Cleo throughout the novel. There were hints of more assertiveness in her, to the point that Cass sometimes calls her out on reverting to old Cleo, but nowhere near the level that would inspire such dislike, so even with her slip-ups, she still comes off being like a totally new person.

Still, overall, this was an entertaining novel. I wish the ending had been less ambiguous, and that Cleo’s personality development had felt more realistic, but I loved the family dynamics and explorations of Asian women’s experiences.


Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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