Killing Time with the Memory of Absence: A Review of Frederika Amalia Finkelstein’s Forgetting by Nicole Yurcaba

Frederika Amalia Finkelstein’s Forgetting is definitely one of those novels that a reader begins reading and cannot put down. The novel follows Alma, who nighttime wanderings through Paris are part of the grieving process for her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. As she navigates streets, walkways, a few Pepsis and Cokes, and fast-food restaurants, Alma’s emotional unraveling reveals generational trauma’s irrevocable, deep impacts. Packed with historical references and American pop culture allusions, Forgetting is a psychological thriller that leaves readers wondering if Alma is not only okay, but also the most reliable narrator. 

At first, many of Alma’s statements unveil her psychological state. The novel opens with a sleepless Alma confessing, “I keep hoping the dead are going to leave me in peace, but that seems futile. A vision of the showers in Auschwitz after the SS have released the Zyklon B comes to trouble me at night when I can’t sleep.” She also confides that she has “absolutely no fear of forgetting the extermination of the Jews,” despite the fact that she wants to do so. Alma’s inability to escape the generational trauma shapes her personality and ultimately leads to her self-isolation from others, and it leads her to a definitive question: “...have I been entombed by the trace left on me by my ancestors.” She admits that “Traces can bury us alive” and “To be buried is to be unable to live,” but she also admits that her grandfather’s story is ultimately her story. 

Forgetting isn’t merely a commentary on the generational trauma which haunts Holocaust survivors’ children and grandchildren. At times, it also harbors a lot of social criticism, especially in regards to something everyone encounters—screens. Alma is heavily influenced by American pop culture, going so far as to frequently mention a love for Pepsi, Coke, Dunkin Donuts, and, surprising Bret Easton Ellis. As influential as those pop culture elements are in her life, nonetheless, the most glaring (no pun intended) influence—or perhaps distraction—is screens. Primarily, Alma focuses on her relationship with video games and how she was “raised among screens from a very young age,” which made her realize that “reality flickered, that it wasn’t solid.” She confesses that screens make everything “potentially spectacular.” In these conversations, readers sense that Alma has, in many ways, disassociated from reality. A single statement adeptly seizes Alma’s disassociation: “I’m not of winter, I’m not of fall, I’m not of spring, I’m not of summer, but a fifth season. Thrown into the world, I saw and then I understood.” Here, readers also see that Alma’s journey is an inward one as well as an outward one. 

Nevertheless, Alma has one critical flaw: she may not be the most reliable narrator. This specifically emerges when Alma reflects about the death of her dog, Edgar. In the novel’s initial pages, Alma doesn’t reveal the cause of Edgar’s death. As the novel progresses, readers learn that as a child, Alma slit Edgar’s throat, placed his body in a sports bag, then proceeded to venture by bus to a far-off forest and bury Edgar. Here, Alma transforms from a ultra-depressed young woman wrecked by grief and generational trauma into a questionable, murderous, almost unrecognizable person, and it is the latter character which haunts the novel’s remaining pages. 

Forgetting is piercing, and despite its title, it is definitely a book readers will not forget quickly—and that’s a good thing. It’s a novel readers are sure to return to again and again, because it is haunting and psychological, and it asks important questions about what one does with their existence, and what truths about themselves one chooses to reveal. 

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.