Doubleday £14.99

The Man Who Forgot His Wife, By John O'Farrell

The jokes keep coming in this novel about an amnesiac family man, but the punchlines involve some serious philosophical thought

John O'Farrell's fourth novel is a tale of laughter and forgetting. Its hero, a teacher, husband and father called Jack Vaughan, is on the Tube when he realises that he doesn't know where he is. More worryingly, Vaughan doesn't know who, what, when or, more to the point, why he is either. Checking himself into hospital, he learns that he has suffered a "psychogenic fugue" – not a piece of avant-garde music but the sort of amnesia that is a staple of high-concept narratives from Memento to S J Watson's Before I Go to Sleep.

What Vaughan has not mislaid is his desire to crack a joke. Hoping to jog his errant memory, he reads a book of baby names, only to find the plot unsatisfying: "Aaron ... has a walk-on part right at the beginning but then we never hear from him again." This follows a more obvious gag about Vaughan's possible criminal past: could his felonies include "paedophile", "vivisectionist" and "banker"? Boom-boom.

Vaughan is informed that most psychogenic fugues are the result of severe psychic trauma. As he begins his recovery, however, we see that absent-mindedness is not a new condition but something like Vaughan's permanent state of mind. Distracted by routine and disillusioned by the modern world, he has become unmoored from his founding passions: why he became a history teacher, for example.

More grievously, Vaughan has lost the loving feeling that glued him to his wife, Maddy. Indeed, the largest missing piece of his existential jigsaw is the fact that Maddy has filed for divorce and is dating a smarm-bomb called Ralph. Could that explain the pesky fugue? The neat twist is that when Vaughan meets Maddy to finalise the divorce, he falls head-over-heels in love at "first" sight, so a voyage of self-discovery doubles as romantic quest to win her back.

O'Farrell has played this tune before. The Man Who Forgot His Wife remixes his very funny debut The Best a Man Can Get. Both feature complacent, mildly flawed middle-aged heroes who take their lives and loves for granted. Both men have charming, lively families – even their children, Alfie/Jamie and Millie/Dillie, sound similar. And both conduct their soul-searching while underwater in the bath.

This last is a telling image. Beneath Vaughan's bubbly, if occasionally tiring stand-up routines lurk deeper meditations on the perils and compensations of ageing. O'Farrell's amnesia plot device catches that eerie sensation of looking in the mirror and failing to recognise the grizzled old goat staring back.

Vaughan's predicament raises fundamental questions, even if in a light-hearted form. Are we simply the sum of our memories? If our slate was wiped clean, could we, like Vaughan, be transformed from self-centred curmudgeons into thoughtful liberals with awkward sexual techniques? But O'Farrell himself would doubtless mock this sort of thing out of existence. His one-liners aim to entertain, puncturing moments that come close to philosophy or sentimentality.

Indeed, what elevates O'Farrell's fourth novel above his first is that its comic routines are imbued with emotion. The Best a Man Can Get felt like a witty series of sketches stitched into a narrative. The Man Who Forgot His Wife is a coherent story told through character, humour and pathos. The furious argument between Vaughan and Maddy that is preserved on a family home movie is believably excruciating. A running joke involving a postcard of a cartoon leprechaun is touching and skilfully deployed. The scenes involving Vaughan's seriously ill father are poignant and funny: I don't want to spoil the punchline on page 106, but the phrase "Who fuck hell are you, fuck-bastard?" deserves its own game show.

Not everything works. Witness the images of tents collapsing allegorically. (Like a relationship they need two poles to stay up.) The brief attempt to explore history isn't any more convincing than it was in Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending. And Vaughan's recovery of his pedagogical passion via a student called Tanika feels sketched more than developed.

But the pluses outpace the minuses by miles. Vaughan's daughter, Dillie, is a glorious creation, whose scatter-shot delivery is beautifully rendered: "-and-what-should-I-get-Grandma-for-her-birthday-oh-it's-How-I-Met-Your-Mother-tonight-can-we-watch-that?"

The show, however, is stolen by Maddy, whose youthful vivacity is captured in flashback: the passage in which she commandeers the public address on an intercity train is a highlight of the book. More rounded than O'Farrell's previous female leads, Maddy elevates this tale of laughter and forgetting into one of understanding and forgiveness.

The moral? Pay close attention – to who you are, who you were and who you are with. Retain your sense of humour. And never leave home without identification.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor