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Scuba diving, ballroom dancing and writing are the three favourite activities of Malaysian-born novelist FELICIA YAP. The multiskilled debut author tells gr about her new thriller, Yesterday, in which characters with severely restricted memories must solve the mysteries surrounding a woman’s body that is pulled out of an English river.

It’s often said that memory is fickle, but for decades, scientists have been revealing the disturbing extent to which our memories can be distorted. In 2000, researchers had volunteers looks at a collection of photos from their childhood, which included a fake image of the volunteer’s family riding in a hot-air balloon. In interviews afterwards, half of the participants recalled having departed on the balloon trip that never took place. Using a similar method, two scientists posing as marketing researchers for Disney showed people who had been to Disneyland at some point in their lives a promotional poster of a visitor shaking hands with Bugs Bunny. A third of the subjects later described experiencing a congenial meeting with the carrot-gnawing Looney Tunes character. But Bugs Bunny has never set foot in Disneyland – he’s a Warner Brothers’ character.

There’s even an article in Scientific American that provides an ostensibly simple guide to ‘pranking’ your friends by implanting a fake memory in their mind through weeks of sly manipulation. The author writes that memory is ‘easily tampered with; a patchwork quilt that can be ripped, torn, and remade’.

It’s disturbing stuff, and it’s exactly what Malaysia-born Felicia Yap set out to investigate in her debut novel, Yesterday.

‘I wanted to explore the slippery nature of memory, our capacity for self-delusion,’ Felicia told Good Reading. ‘Yesterday is about the lies we choose to tell ourselves, the pasts we prefer. What if we can’t remember the crimes we committed in the past, or managed to convince ourselves that we weren’t to blame?’

Felicia’s own past began in Cheras, a district in Malaysia’s capital city. Her mother worked in a car repair shop and her father refilled ATMs, although the job wasn’t as lucrative as you might think – Felicia recalls that their house was tiny and the floor of her father’s rusted Datsun was peppered  with holes. She left Malaysia to study biochemistry at Imperial College London and researched radioactive cells in Heidelberg, Germany. Felicia completed a doctorate in history at Cambridge, in which she investigated the experiences of Asian prisoners of war in World War II. Add to the bag regular pieces of journalism published in The Economist, a stint as a catwalk model, and competitive ballroom dancing.

She was on her way to a dancing class when the thought that gave rise to her first novel popped into her head: how do you solve a murder if you can only remember yesterday?

The question lingered, but Felicia’s next career as a novelist didn’t begin until a random woman sent Felicia a friend request on Facebook. Instead of sensibly deleting the stranger’s request, Felicia accepted; something about the woman’s face seemed trustworthy. The woman immediately apologised, saying that she had mistaken Felicia for one of her classmates from Faber Academy. As a result of this serendipitous encounter, Felicia ended up attending one of the academy’s writing courses in the UK and equipped herself with the skills to make her next career leap.

In Yesterday, the author presents a world in which society is divided into ‘Monos’ – those who can only recall the events of yesterday – and the superior ‘Duos’, who can remember two days into the past. People can train themselves to retain a handful of important facts about themselves, their lives and their loved ones, but they must log everything else into their iDiaries as a kind of external memory storage. Felicia doesn’t see her book as a sci-fi story but rather as an ‘exaggerated version of our society.’

‘The so-called Duo-Mono divide may be more realthan it seems,’ she says. ‘In our own society, people who are blessed with better memories tend to get further in life. It’s easier for them to pass exams, for instance, because they’re able to remember the right ‘facts’ or answers – aren’t exams all about remembering? People with poorer memories often languish at the bottom of society; people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, for instance, often end up in institutions.’

"People with poorer memories often languish at the bottom of society."

Claire, a Mono, is the protagonist of the thriller. She’s married to a Duo, Mark, who’s a novice politician. The novel unfolds over the course of a day that begins with the body of a woman being pulled from River Cam in Cambridge. The woman, Claire discovers, was Mark’s mistress. As Claire attempts to investigate the woman’s death and the secrets Mark has been keeping from her, the novel not only amps the dramatic tension; as they accumulate more memory, the characters’ emotions grow increasingly intense.

‘I believe that memories are strongly tied to feelings. Emotions help us decide what to remember – or forget. In the early chapters of the book, my characters have voices which are relatively devoid of strong feelings,’ Felicia says. ‘As the day develops, the characters excavate more facts about their pasts and build more short-term memories. This gives them more vivid emotions.’

The manuscript of Yesterday was the subject of a bidding war between nine major publishers. Felicia humbly ascribes her success to a network of contacts who helped her craft the most accurate and taut novel possible, including a contact at the UK’s Metropolitan Police, who sent her 10 pages of procedural information, a Singaporean psychiatrist and the former head of a drug intelligence laboratory. Fifteen beta readers provided Felicia with a combined 67 pages of feedback that helped her ‘tighten up the logic and science’ of the story, and the author nominates Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as significant influences for their visceral prose and charismatic characters.

The advice from a forensic pathologist from the East Midlands was particularly helpful in describing the novel’s opening crime.

‘To my relief, he said that my report was more or less consistent with the condition of a one-and-a-half-day-old body which had been fished out from a river. He did point out, though, that the body’s lungs should be described as ‘overlapping and hyperinflated’ and that boobs definitely do not exist in size GG. I went home and made the corrections. You keep learning as a writer.’

Yesterday  by Felicia Yap is published by Hachette, rrp $32.99. Get a further 10% off on top of Booktopia's 20% discount when you use the code GRMBKT10 at checkout!

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