Book review: Amnesia

Friday, October 10, 2014 Permalink

In the blogging / online / social media world there’s something called clickbait. It’s (apparently) a bad thing and usually involves (a perception of) deception. You tweet / Facebook something with a link that catches the eye of readers, but when they open the link it’s got little to do with what they were expecting. Titling blog posts offers the same dilemma*. It’s a fine line: how to offer a title that’s clever and enticing; but (at the same time) relevant.

In a click-baity sense therefore, the description of Peter Carey’s latest novel Amnesia… about the most hated woman in America is hugely misleading. America’s relationship to Australia features prominently in the novel but the promotional phrase

a young woman from suburban Melbourne becoming America’s public enemy number one

involves drawing a very very long bow. In fact, (I’m fairly sure˜) the hated woman in question didn’t realise her actions would have any impact on the US (and we don’t actually hear a lot about the fall-out!)

Having had my whinge – Peter Carey is an amazing writer. Even if you aren’t a fan of his work, I think you’d struggle to condemn his prose in any way. Carey’s writing is both beautiful and effortless. At the same time.

Amnesia  could possibly divide readers. Indeed, my own feelings toward the book, its plot and its characters varied greatly over the three sittings it took me to finish the novel. There is no doubt however that it’s written with magical eloquence.


Felix Moore is a middle-aged once-respected political journalist. When we first meet him he’s in the midst of losing a defamation court case and his marriage is balancing precariously under the weight of their already-heavy financial burden.

His latest escapade has left him a media leper, so Felix jumps at the chance offered by wealthy businessman and long-time friend Woody Townes to interview a young woman also making headlines for the wrong reasons.

Gaby Baillieux is accused of hacking into Australian prison system to free asylum seekers.

Noble perhaps, but also naive given America’s prison system uses the same technology and dangerous criminals were released in both countries. Felix is sure that there are more nefarious forces at work and the source of the incident dates back to events in 1975, a period of our history which interests him greatly. #understatement

The key characters in Carey’s novel are all larger than life. Felix very quickly goes from an inquiring journalist to a heavy-drinking, paranoid, gullible, maudlin has-been. His benefactor and old friend Woody is basically a thug whose motives I never fully understand. And then there’s Celine – Gaby’s mother and Felix’s old university friend. The former actress and minor celebrity carries A LOT of baggage about her own past and her actions are *rather* out of control.

As for Gaby – we barely meet her though hear about much of her life through her own voice. Bizarrely, she’s probably the most likeable of all Carey’s characters.

The first part of the book is more about Felix and the history of some of the key players. It’s told (by Felix) in first person before switching part way through into third person for the majority of the novel (before switching back at the very end). It was probably easier to reflect on Felix’s behaviour from a more objective point of view, but it was a little disconcerting.

Through recordings Gaby’s early rebellion and influences are unveiled. They’re interesting and provide a useful backstory but we never really get to the ‘issue’ at hand (the computer hacking crime) and her story ends kinda abruptly. Any sense of closure or comprehension were not forthcoming (unless I missed the point entirely˜).

I struggled a little at times to know what was happening and who was who. Indeed Felix was kidnapped so many times I lost count of who and why.

And… while I call myself many things (fat, ugly, frumpy), I rarely call myself dumb. Ignorant perhaps, but I don’t think I’m ‘dumb’. Amnesia – with a strong focus on politics made me realise how little I know about our political history (Battle of Brisbane, Pine Gap, the double dissolution). In fact, the title of the book comes from what Carey calls – The Great Amnesia – our inability to remember and learn from our mistakes of the past!

Nonetheless I really struggled with many of the political and literary references so spent much of the novel feeling somewhat obtuse!

Despite being beautifully written, I finished the novel feeling somewhat dissatisfied. Duped in a way. There are a lot of words, but few answers. The plot I expected wasn’t the plot I got.

Lovers of good literature and political devotees will undoubtedly enjoy this book immensely. (I’m not sure about Americans, however.)

Amnesia by Peter Carey, published by Penguin Australia will be released on 14 October 2014.

* It’s particularly challenging for me cos I LOVE coming up with obscure titles!

I received an advance copy of this book compliments of the publisher and The Reading Room. 

Are you a Peter Carey fan?
Is Amnesia on your reading list?

  • Michelle Weaver (@pinkypoinker)
    October 10, 2014

    If you found it confusing it would most definitely be too high brow for me. I like what you said about Peter Carey’s prose being beautiful but effortless. I’ll have to find a book of his that doesn’t delve into politics to see what you mean 🙂

    • Debbish
      October 10, 2014

      I haven’t read all of his work but I couldn’t fault his writing at all.

      I just felt very unintellectual.

  • Jess
    October 10, 2014

    Totally agree with Michelle if you feel unintellectual reading it I’d feel way out of depth too, although definitely sounds like I could learn a lot from reading it.

    • Debbish
      October 11, 2014

      Yes, it was enlightening that’s for sure. I felt rather guilty I knew so little about our history – though I did wonder if some (re US / CIA involvement in our political history) was supposition vs fact.

  • Mysterious Bibliophile
    October 11, 2014

    Hmm … this sounds intriguing, especially the way you described the author’s writing style.

    • Debbish
      October 11, 2014

      Yes, Peter Carey’s pretty well known here in Oz (won Booker prize twice!). I understand that this (the time in history on which this book focuses) is a passion of his.

  • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
    October 12, 2014

    A great review Debbie, that reaffirms my choice to give this one a miss.

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