Mr. Nobody
Catherine Steadman
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Buy *Mr. Nobody* by Catherine Steadman online

Mr. Nobody
Catherine Steadman
Ballantine Books
368 pages
January 2020
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Set on the Norfolk coast with its wintery blur, Mr. Nobody is an apt title for Steadman's understated thriller filled with malice and layer upon layer of troubling revelations. The opening chapters give the reader a hint of the tension to come. More than comfortable with the bent psychological pathways of her cosmopolitan patients, London doctor Emma Lewis--lead consultant neuropsychiatrist--has just received an offer from an old colleague, Richard Groves, to disentangle the identity of a man found on Holkham Beach.

According to the police, the man is a handsome one in his late 30s or early 40s. First on the scene were Officer Poole and his reporter wife, Zara, both taken with the man's thick dark hair, brown eyes and shadow of gray-sprinkled stubble across his jaw. Emma senses something sinister; she feels as though the man's discovery may be a harbinger of stranger things to come. She has ideas and theories, but more importantly she can finally take a stab at studying a real fugue case.

Traveling north, Emma's advisor tells her that if she accepts this temporary post, there will be a substantial amount of nondisclosure paperwork. The man isn't faking; he's also not speaking--he hasn't said a word since he turned up. In all probability, his memory loss was caused by mental trauma, a retrograde amnesia or fugue--the loss of all stored episodic memory that is caused solely by psychological trauma.

For most of the novel, Steadman captures the essence of Emma's confession that she has spent 14-years of her life trying to get away from "that place." Now the only way forward, the only way out is back to Norfolk. In the hospital, the "unknown male" is disorientated and aggressive, highly agitated and non-responsive. One simple sentence or word could bring his memory all back with a sudden sickening immediacy. Maybe the man isn't talking because he's scared; any form of memory loss can be deeply disorienting. Ensconced in Cuckoo Lodge, Emma's mind creeps back to her old house: "I shake the memory away, shuddering."

According to Rhoda and Nick, the staff at the hospital, the idea of the man now called "Matthew" is plagued by the tiniest flash of memory, the cold of a forest; a girl's breath, labored and scared. Emma realizes that there's something familiar about Matthew; she can't quite place her finger on it yet: "I know it can't be him, he died 14 years ago. I just have this awful feeling that I did something." Matthew watches Emma, his handsome face concerned, as a cat-and-mouse game begins.

Steadman accelerates a complicated mix of Emma's past and Matthew's present. Everyone wants to know where Emma has been for the last 14 years. She's plagued by strange sounds and feelings: "they come in flashes and moments." Matthew remembers that he loved her and he cared for her, yet he makes Emma feel exposed, raw and unprotected: "How was it so easy to break me down, to strip me back? After all the years of therapy since it happened." On the trail to discover Matthew's past, Emma and Chris Poole build an intimacy that reveals their private passions and disappointments, but their fledging reconnection is waylaid by Zara's meddlesome instincts.

While I thought the novel slow, Steadman's thriller is thoughtful in its exploration of the fugue state as it examines a man with no memory and with a woman who knows too much. The suspenseful plot also finds a reasonably good balance between the dramas of "Mr. Nobody" and the external threats to Emma, who overnight finds herself descending deeper and deeper into a flurry of danger and despair.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2020

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