Book Review

“Words rained all around me,” states our narrator in a moment of loss, clarity, and reverie. “At first a soft drizzle—conjunctions, words that seemed to connect but not describe.” The moment, placed at the start of the novel as the consequence of a dead end, carefully cradles a waning sense of identity and purpose: “Flowing through me. Disguising me. Revealing me. Forming the notion of who I was and who I could be.” There is still hope for her to unveil one of the greatest mysteries present in her grandfather’s journal of World War I. And yet, “time fractured. I looked down. The words dissolved into puddles.” Futility.

Binding a desire to discover the past with an unknown locale severs reality in Rebecca Goodman’s latest novel, Forgotten Night. Not a single experience can be read as an accurate account, yet every moment is an encounter with truth, as when she notes that “the image seemed at once real—at once a fiction.” How else can one convey the multifaceted state of being alive? Goodman highlights how identities are formed from conversations with both truths and fictions and how facets of an identity will respond differently to new information, forming questions around the consistency of the present.

Recognizing one’s inability to control the present is at the core of Forgotten Night. Goodman reveals how much lives become porous and permeable, constantly shifting from thought and memory to the immediate setting. Existence is blended, never settled. Such a narrative technique is a powerful construct in a novel focused on finding history or, more accurately, experiencing the past. What’s happened is gone, a building block of our reality that can’t be found. But there’s a possibility of feeling: “When you forget, do you enter the past or the present?” Note that Goodman meaningfully uses the word enter, allowing the narrator to become an active participant, working inside a reconstructed past.

At various moments in Forgotten Night, time collapses. Early on, our narrator recalls a moment with her grandmother while resting along the banks of a stream. The memory of sitting beside her grandmother subdues the present to a trickle, halting discussion, blurring what is happening at the moment. Later on, the juxtaposition of the past is no longer a personal memory. She is subjected to visions of war and even the sensation of torture: “He continued to turn the wheel until I was suspended above the ground. The space around me shrinking. The stone walls. The damp room. I hung by my wrists. My shoulders dislocating.” While disorienting, these moments become intricately woven into the protagonist’s psyche. In fact, an argument can be made that these traumatic experiences were simply hidden in the narrator’s body and required a trigger. In this way, Goodman shores up the significance of legacy and how to be alive often means to carry generational trauma.

Through this pocket of understanding, the beating heart of the text appears. Are people forgetting the Holocaust? Are people forgetting the face of fascism? What does it mean to be forgotten? Should the act of forgetting be seen as a deliberate action with hostile intent?

In Goodman’s work, the act of forgetting and being forgotten are tied to violence. To forget is to cut something out of history. It is a deliberate action that causes remnants of the past to be estranged from their roots. And through this type of erasure, the forgotten become vulnerable to violence. When people forget, the possibility for past atrocities to be repeated becomes tangible, one step away. Thus, when an entire community disputes that any Jew has lived among them for centuries, every interaction for the narrator contains the possibility of violence. Her history is being denied, and she is living among people who have reconstructed a reality that doesn’t accept her. “The Jews were slaughtered…why would they come back?” Goodman writes. This type of mentality is all too relevant today.

To capture the looming danger of such a society, Goodman tightens her language in a way that tethers a sense of fear to each moment. Every line feels bottled up—tied around the neck. The narrator is afraid to expose her identity in any circumstance and distrusts the elasticity of her own thoughts. Sentences are carved into fragments, depositing the bare minimum. Often, language breaks into snapping visuals. And throughout the book, there is a terrifying sense of uncertainty. How can we live free when we’re uncertain of our safety? Goodman succeeds in building this concern without letting darkness overcome Forgotten Night, creating a haunting dive into the power of memory and legacy.

About the Reviewer

Evan Burkin (he/him/his) is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, where he serves as an assistant poetry editor for the university's grad-run literary journal, Fourteen Hills. His work has been published or is forthcoming in New American Writing, THRUSH, Allegory, Birdcoat Quarterly, A-Minor Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Analogies & Allegories Literary Magazine, Feral: A Journal of Poetry and Art, The Madrigal, Sur, Inklette, Ayaskala, and Rain Taxi.