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How the Brain Forgets: On Penelope Farmer’s ‘Charlotte Sometimes’

By posted at 6:00 am on August 31, 2015 0

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There’s a scene in Inside Out, the new Pixar movie about the inner life of a young girl, that illustrates how the brain forgets. In Pixar’s rendering of the brain’s interior, memories are stored in brightly colored globes. When a memory begins to weaken, its color fades and eventually turns gray. Then a cleaning crew comes in to expunge the grayest globes, paying no heed to the memory contained within, even if it is important or interesting. It’s a funny visual of “use it or lose it,” that sad fact of human memory.

Watching that scene, I thought, of course, of all the times I’ve had to click the Did you forget your password? link. Then I thought of all the books I read as a child, especially the “chapter books” I read in elementary and middle school. They seem more lost, somehow, than the books I read in my teens and early-20s. The premises and characters of these books I may have forgotten, but their titles and authors I can still recall. But the books I read from ages nine to 12 are different. During those years, I consumed books the way a child does: quickly and without discernment. I don’t even remember having strong opinions about them. It was as if the things I read were just a passing landscape — what would be the point of saying I liked one landscape better than another? I knew I would never go down that particular road again.

This is a long way of saying that I recently happened upon one of these landscapes. For years, I’ve had a very, very dim memory of having read a book about a girl who time travels while she sleeps. But that was all I could remember. I had no author or title, no idea of the cover or the year it was written. I wasn’t even sure if it was a book. Sometimes I would ask people if they remembered reading or watching such a story. No luck. Oh well, I thought. It probably wasn’t a very good book, anyway.

Happily, I was wrong. The book is good, really good. I discovered it while browsing The New York Review’s online catalog of children’s books. I was looking for a gift for my 10-year-old niece, and I read a novel synopsis that sounded very much like my dim memory: Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer. You might recognize the title from The Cure whose 1981 single “Charlotte Sometimes” was inspired by Farmer’s book. (Charlotte Sometimes was first published in 1969, when Robert Smith would have been 10.) After re-reading it, I thought, yeah, I can see why this novel inspired The Cure. It’s a somewhat gloomy book, an eerie story about childhood, identity, loneliness, and death.

At the same time, it has all the pleasures of a good time-travel yarn. The premise is simple: a girl, Charlotte Makepeace, arrives at boarding school, falls asleep in her new dormitory, and wakes up in the same dormitory bed, only it’s 1918, 40 years earlier. There’s a war going on and her classmates are completely different. Everyone calls her “Clare.” The next morning, Charlotte wakes up to find that she’s back in her own time. The next morning, she’s back in 1918. After a few days of going back and forth between the past and present, Charlotte realizes that she’s switching places with Clare. She and Clare begin to leave notes to help each other cope. Because Charlotte is the new girl, and no one knows her, hardly anyone notices that Clare is taking her place. But Clare’s sister, Emily, immediately realizes that Charlotte is an impersonator, and demands to know what is going on. Charlotte doesn’t know. The best she can guess is that it has something to do with the bed that she and Clare share.

Charlotte is right about the bed; disaster strikes when Charlotte, during one of her 1918 visits, is moved out of the dormitory and into a new bed. Without the magic bed, Charlotte can’t get back to her time. She’s terrified, and at the same time a little relieved to have a break from her nightly commutes, which leave her reeling at the beginning of each day as she tries to catch up on what she missed during the previous day. One of the things I liked about the book as an adult (and probably also as a child) was how faithful the novel is to Charlotte’s point of view. Not only do we never hear from any other character, including Clare, (who is presumably dealing with her own confusion in 1958), the book also doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the logistics of time travel or the differences between life in 1958 and 1918. Instead, the book focuses on Charlotte’s precarious sense of identity as she shifts between being herself and impersonating Clare:

And she thought, uncomfortably, what would happen if people did not recognize you? Would you know who you were yourself? If tomorrow they started to call her Vanessa or Janet or Elizabeth, would she know how to be, how to feel, like Charlotte? Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that?

Later, after being stuck in Clare’s time for many weeks, Charlotte’s sense of self begins to weaken even more:

Charlotte began to dream she was fighting to stay as Charlotte, and one night woke from such a dream struggling, even crying a little. When she was calm again, she did not feel sleepy at all, so she lay still, carefully and deliberately making herself remember Aviary Hall, object by object, room by room. Also she made herself remember things that had happened to her there, as Charlotte, but it was alarming how the details seemed to slip away from her. Even when she tried to conjure up her sister Emma’s face, she kept on seeing Emily’s.

Adolescence is all about forging an identity, and this novel speaks to those questions of “who am I?” and “how do other people see me?” in an abstract, haunting way. Even as an adult, I occasionally wonder what kind of person I would be had I grown up in a different era. For me this question is a feminist one, since my identity would have been limited in certain ways had I been born 40 years earlier. Charlotte Sometimes doesn’t have a feminist agenda, yet it does give a rare portrait of the lives of girls and women during wartime. It also shows how the past can live on in the present. One of the central mysteries of the novel is how Clare and Charlotte are connected across time and why they are able to switch places. I won’t spoil it here except to say that I found the ending very satisfying, and even though I had no specific memory of it, it’s probably the reason that the book stuck with me for all these years.

For those of you with middle-grade children, I recommend Charlotte Sometimes wholeheartedly, and for those of you who may have read it as a child, I recommend returning to it, if only because rereading is one of the only forms of time travel available to us. One of the surprising joys of reading picture books to my toddler son is glimpsing an illustration or reading aloud a phrase that suddenly registers as familiar and beloved. What seems forgotten is only waiting to be rediscovered.

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