Saturday, November 8, 2014

Amnesia by Peter Carey (2014)

Amnesia is the latest novel from the great Australian author Peter Carey. It’s been a while since I’ve read a Carey but I was intrigued by the premise of this novel – a young Australian woman releases a computer virus that frees prisoners all over the world, making her “America’s public enemy number one”. I was quietly excited when I was allowed to access an advance copy on Netgalley.

The novel opens with journalist Felix Moore being convicted of defamation. Immediately after being sentenced, Felix and his grotesquely obese benefactor (this is often repeated: Amnesia is very concerned when its characters gain weight), the wealthy criminal property developer Woody “Wodonga” Townes, repair to the pub to get drunk, before going home and accidentally drunkenly burning his house down. At the same time as Felix’s courtroom downfall is occurring, a virus that opened prisons around the world, freeing political prisoners and hardened violent criminals alike was released by a hacker called Angel, who turns out to be Melbourne-born Gaby Baillieux, daughter of Felix’s fellow Monash alum Celine Baillieux. Gaby is caught by the police then bailed out by Wodonga, who also has a past with Celine. Drunk, destitute and desperate (always so very drunk!), Felix is hired by Wodonga to write a book that portrays Gaby as a hero so that she won’t be deported by the Americans, who Felix are convinced are behind every major event in Australian politics. This is important, because Felix’s firm and fervent conviction that the CIA were behind the events of 1975 that have shaped so much of Australia’s politics ever since dominates the book and motivates Felix’s desperate desire to tell the truth. Part I is a first-person account of events from Felix’s point of view, while Part II’s narration shifts a lot, moving between a third person recounting of Felix’s actions and Gaby and Celine’s recorded first-person account that is reported by Felix.

Peter Carey is the perfect author if a recently returned traveller wants to feel like they have arrived home. His language evocatively captures the essence of Australia, from the truth about how those in cities understand the rich bushland that surrounds their urban environments to references to the annual (very dangerous!) magpie swooping season. The book was at its best and most enjoyable when it placed Felix within these surroundings, taking us on a journey from the Battle of Brisbane in World War II Queensland to the suburban Melbourne of ‘90s via the harsh sundrenched and muddy environs of the first class of Monash University (it’s still a terrible-looking campus and one of the windiest places in Melbourne but markedly less muddy than Carey describes it).

If it had stayed just as that, it would have been a great book. But, the central concern that drives the plot is an investigation of Gaby and that aspect of the book fails miserably. I just did not for one second buy Gaby’s character. Even understanding that the “first person” narration of Gaby’s is filtered through Felix, there is no teenage girl in the world who speaks likes that. It was like a historical fiction that had been researched extensively with the items all correctly identified but the idiom just slightly off. It’s such a pity, because all the other characters were so richly drawn that the falsity of Gaby stands out clearly. It kind of feels like a book that was started with one idea but then ended at a place the author did not expected it to go but wasn’t that fussed about.

I still enjoyed the book and I will revisit Part I whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in lovely Australian language. The second part, not so much. Three stars.

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