Sometimes I wonder why I enjoy memoir so much. Why should a stranger’s life–or some particular occurrence in it–be so compelling? It seems curious, even voyeuristic. But the memoirs I’ve liked most have a strong narrative arc, like fiction. It’s the narrative that’s compelling, regardless of whether it’s a true story or an imagined one. This memoir reinforced that realization for me.

David MacLean was a Fulbright scholar working in Hyderabad, India when he awoke on a train platform without any knowledge of where he was, why he was there, or even who he was. As he stood, not knowing where to begin, a kindly tourism officer offered assistance. As the officer helps him discover his identity and contact his parents, MacLean flits in and out of lucidity. The reader follows along through hallucination after hallucination, through cycles of waking and dreaming or maybe not even dreaming, maybe more hallucinating, and all the while the reader is thinking, “Whoa! This is CRAZY! What is going on??”

The memoir does a great job of showing readers what this confusing, traumatic experience must have been like. Through lucid moments and hallucinations, the readers piece things together in the order that MacLean must have done, though certainly with better cognition than he was experiencing. He is hospitalized, strapped down, and medicated, and aside from descriptions of visitors and doctors and the continuing hallucinations, we don’t learn much about why he’s in this state until his parents come to take him home.

The mystery of the story keeps readers going, at least in the early part of the book. In the beginning there are all the questions: who, and what, and where, and why. But as we journey further into the story, we’re asking how: how will he get his memory back? Will he get his memory back?

We travel with MacLean as he returns from India to Ohio, United States, to recover at his parents’ home. As he pieces together his identity and his past, we learn that the psychosis had been caused by an anti-malarial drug, that it has happened to others, and that doctors aren’t sure whether he’ll ever fully recover. For a time, David pretends a lot. He plays the role that it seems he should be playing, pretending to remember the people he sees in photos, hiding some of the aftereffects of the hallucinations. As memories begin to return, piecemeal, he struggles to put his life story together even as he returns to India to finish his Fulbright and then returns to graduate school to complete his studies.

I appreciate that MacLean has shared this terrifying experience, because its cause–the drug mefloquine (brand name Lariam)–is still in use today, and people need to be aware of its dangerous neuropsychiatric effects. (MacLean does mention that a doctor told him years after the incident in India that the cause was not Lariam, so maybe the jury is out on this point?) Information about this drug is woven into the narrative and a chart detailing its many adverse effects is included in the postlude. Disturbingly, MacLean reports that the drug was widely prescribed by the U.S. military for soldiers up until 2009 and was still used in “special situations” as late as 2012.

MacLean’s story is disturbing, painful even, because the trauma described is intense and his struggle is profound. But it’s also an encouraging account of human resilience and an exploration of enduring questions about identity and memory.