Loss of Memory and Divided Identities in Psychological Thriller ‘I Know My Name’

It's risky to build the success of a genre psychological thriller on the incorporation of psychological therapeutic techniques. But in Cooke's hands, it works.

I Know My Name
C. J. Cooke
Grand Central Publishing
Jan 2016
Sometimes a reader’s patience and forbearance while following the winding paths of a psychological thriller pays off in the long run. It might not pay off with everlasting literary rewards, but such are the end results of the high-minded and elite literary writer. The writer of thrillers is not always a thrilling writer. Genre fiction best suited for cramped train rides, or best read in the more than gently used library of a secluded cabin, understands that there’s nothing wrong with formula plots. It’s when they become formulaic, and better suited as an audio book or a highly stylized film novelization of a film not yet made, that the supply of patience a reader brings to their relationship with the text can become dangerously low.

In C. J. Cooke‘s I Know My Name, however, the formula is effectively evoked from the first page to the last. There are two stories here. In the first, “Girl on the Beach“, it’s spring 2015. A woman is lost on an island eight miles off the coast of Crete. She has no idea who she is, where she came from, and why she is on this island. She only understands the here and now, and the only other residents are four people, two men and two woman. Who are they? Why is she there? How long will she be on that island before she is rescued?

We are familiar with the premise of this format from scores of psychological thrillers. But this doesn’t mean that Cooke is working with tired material here. Without giving away some spoilers, we know that identity is key to understanding this character. Is she there with these people? Is she all alone? The island is an isolated world where truths are uncovered and secrets revealed and nobody will come out of this experience unscathed. Hazel, one of the people on the island, tells this woman something obvious:

‘You could be anybody,’ Hazel says, at once exasperated and curious. ‘How do you have a sense of who you are if you don’t remember anything?’

Later, in a line that’s probably a more obvious sense of foreshadowing than it should be (especially for those of us very familiar with the form), one of the other island inhabitants illustrates an early thesis of this novel:

‘Identity is performance,’ Joe says. ‘Ask any psychoanalyst and they’ll tell you the same.’

Little by little, pieces of her life return to her memory. She has two children, one of them a nursing infant. Her breasts are heavy with milk, leaking, and she feels like she’s bleeding. Cooke alternates these chapters of our heroine wondering who she is, why she is, and where she is, with a running narrative from the husband Lochlan. These chapters are only identified by their date in March/April 2015. His wife Eloise is missing. Of course, we can conclude from the beginning that Eloise is the woman in question. She’s the amnesiac wandering around a paradise Greek Island uninhabited save for these four other characters. Whether or not this premise will stand for our heroine (who narrates her own sections) remains to be seen.

What we know from Lochlan’s sections is that he is missing his wife. She’s the mother of a toddler and newborn, Max and Cressida. She’s the philanthropic head of an NGO in England. What reason would she have to disappear? Do we suspect the husband of foul play?

What we learn about Eloise is that she comes from privilege. Her grandparents Gerda and Magnus, who have properties in England, Switzerland, and Greece, have come to Lochlan’s side as they await word from this missing wife. Lochlan becomes lost in the absolute imminent devastation of his situation. His wife is missing, he’s automatically held suspect, and he’s seething:

“For hours I lurch between incredulity and devastation. Amazing how you can almost convince yourself of conversations that didn’t happen, of realities and explanations that promise to restore balance and bat away anguish.”

Keep that snippet of confessional narrative in mind and understand that it really only becomes resonant in retrospect. Lochlan notes that he adores his children and understands he’s a lucky man, but then there’s always the other side. There’s always the life he could have lived before the kids came along, before the definitive obligations of parenthood. She’s a charity campaigner, a mother of two, and now she’s gone. What happened?

I Know My Name probably takes more time than it should establishing its premise and encouraging us to get involved in the struggle for identity and memory. Eloise keeps asking why she doesn’t recognize herself, whether or not she has kids, a husband, a life beyond the island and the here and now. “Did I really travel the distance across the sea alone? …Did somebody else accompany me? Did they drown?” The ship that brought her to the island seems to be in irreparable condition, and the man who seems to regularly travel out to the island and bring supplies to the inhabitants is proving unreliable. That might be the meaning behind Cooke’s methodology and approach here and the reader should be forewarned that it will only make sense in retrospect.

It’s risky to build the success of a genre psychological thriller on the incorporation of psychological therapeutic techniques. When one of the island inhabitants suggests to Eloise that writing will stir up the subconscious and help her remember her name, we start to get the sense that these islanders might be more representative and allegorical than actual. When Hazel tells Eloise “You’re not leaving the island,” things become frightening and unsettling. No matter the dependability (rather than predictability) of good genre psychological thrillers, the readers willing to take this plunge might find themselves nervous and fearful of this twist, however temporary it proves to be.

Again, while the initial balance of two stories (this lost woman on an island and her husband searching in vain for her) is effectively rendered, the flashbacks to the ’80s don’t really illuminate as much as Cooke probably intended. We have to know Eloise was traumatized, how it happened, and who can be blamed. It’s just too bad that job couldn’t have been worked out on the island. Take the moments when Eloise and the others discuss the benefits of writing, the way writing can cleanse and heal. It’s in this section, near the halfway point, that we wonder who these people are and how they exist:

“George leaned toward me in confidence and tilted his chin at Joe. ‘Last year, me and Hazel finished a whole novel each while we were here. Ask Joe how many poems he wrote…”

Later in this scene, which involves Eloise determining that she will be leaving the island, one of the other residents reminds her: “Be Pandora.” It’s this reference to the ultimate bad woman, the non-Holy Scripture version of Eve that makes us wish Cooke took a deeper dive into that world. There are other ideas that work stronger, like the disappearance being a calculated move by Eloise to draw more attention to her charity.

How do we balance the elements that lead a successful and beautiful 37-year-old mother of two to suddenly disappear? The strongest plot strand rests in the tragic story of Jude, Eloise’s mom. Combine a succession of boyfriends, sexual and drug abuse, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Cooke effectively tells part of that story from the voice of Gerde:

“We lost Jude, our only child. Our only daughter. Both she and I had escaped death when she exploded into the world three months before she was due… Jude, the patron saint of the impossible.”

Later, Gerde reflects on the parental generation gap between her contemporaries and the parenting style evoked by Eloise and her generation:

“…this generation of parents seems under some kind of spell that compels them to achieve complete and utter perfection.”

Gerde is from another world, judgmental and rigid, but she remains compassionate about her granddaughter’s state of mind. She remembers Eloise saying: ” ‘Sometimes my life feels like it’s happening on the other side of the window.’ ” She fails to act at that point and wonders if doing something then could have prevented what was happening now.

I Know My Name is an effectively developed and well-crafted story that probably takes more time than it should to reach its resolution. However, interested readers should understand that an initial frustration about the novel’s pacing is to be expected. Cooke’s intention here seems to be as much about confronting trauma through creative expression as it is about writing a strong psychological thriller. Some of the resolution and flash forward epilogue might read like the pedantic psychological explanations in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Spellbound. In spite of these misgivings, (or perhaps even because of their innocent overreaching ambition), Cooke has written an ultimately compelling thriller about mental disintegration and re-integration. With a little trimming and focusing, it could prove to be a compelling film or mini-series in that particularly methodical British style.

RATING 8 / 10