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Amnesia by Peter Carey


A review by Nalini Haynes

ISBN-13: 9781926428604
ISBN-10: 1926428609
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)

Trigger warnings: violence to women, rape, references to drug abuse, alcoholism

In 2010, Felix Moore, a 67-year-old journalist, is sued. The judge finds in favour of the plaintiff to the tune of $120,000. Felix is washed up, a has-been.  His wife, Claire, throws Felix out of the house. Felix leaves his wife and two daughters whose private school fees have overwhelmed their parental incomes as a journalist and a potter.

Woody, a long-time friend of Felix, provides Felix with a home and a job. Their long-term friendship changes dramatically: the former loyal friend who seems interested in left-wing (liberal) causes reveals more of his Underbelly side, with his ongoing criminal activities. Felix already knew Woody’s activities involved illegal weapons and actual bodies being buried but, somehow, Felix lived in a sort of semi-denial.

Felix’s new job is to write a book about Gabrielle Baillieux, whose surname has an ‘X’ to differentiate her from the right-wing — Liberal, aka conservative — politician. Gaby’s upbringing was left-wing, or liberal in the Labor Party; I’m not making this shit up. This is Australian Politics 101. Feel free to joke in the comments.

Gaby allegedly hacked a computer system to release prisoners from jail; later this is clarified to releasing asylum seekers from detention. The computer virus she allegedly wrote attacked certain software; this software was closely related to American (and other nations’) security systems due to cost-cutting, building software on software and Australian computer systems being rife with American products while also being too closely connected with American security systems. Systems went down. Americans called Gaby a traitor, conveniently forgetting that she’s Australian; Americans wanted to extradite Gaby to face the death penalty. (Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, anyone?)

Felix starts to write his book without access to the source so he goes back through memory lane. He met Gaby’s mother, Celine Ballieux, when they were both 18, in 1961. Celine discovered her father wasn’t who her mother, Doris, had led her to believe. Celine asked Felix to investigate. Felix writes Doris’s story, enmeshed with the Battle of Brisbane that took place on November 26 and 27 in 1942. This was a battle between Australian soldiers and US military personnel. Peter Carey asks if Australia has amnesia.

Gaby was born on November 11, 1975. While her parents Celine and Sando held their new-born babe they wept. They did not weep tears of joy for their precious child; they wept because the Whitlam government was deposed in an unconstitutional move while the Governor-General held Australian armed forces at the ready, ready to enforce this coup with military might if the Australian people protested. Peter Carey asks if Australia has amnesia.

Carey indulges in info-dumps to convey the CIA’s involvement and some of the intricacies surrounding the 1975 Dismissal.

All of this is framed as necessary to explain Gaby’s story so the second half of the book involves Felix being kidnapped a few times and held prisoner while being forced or shamed or cajoled into writing his magnum opus. Gaby’s current hacktivism is barely mentioned as anything other than motivation for the kidnappings and the book. Instead, Carey focuses on Felix — suddenly relegated to third-person point of view — and the information that Gaby and Celine provided to Felix on cassette tapes. In 2010.

Who, apart from hipsters, used cassettes in 2010?

Spoilers, Sweetie

Gaby’s story is mostly about her high school years, culminating in environmental activism at age 17. Carey doesn’t share what Gaby did between 1992 and 2010. He doesn’t even give us much information about the precipitating event: the worm that has Americans baying for Gaby’s blood.

The denouement breaks the 4th wall: Amnesia was a book released in 2010 and subsequently revised and released after events in 2013. Amnesia the book plays a part in the story other than the meta-narrative ‘book must be written, justifying writing of this book’. It’s a classic trope becoming increasingly mainstream when used by writers like the much-awarded Peter Carey.

Spoilers end

In an era where American entitlement reigns supreme and its common knowledge that the CIA interferes with foreign governments, Amnesia challenges Australians and the world to remember. Carey delves into environmental destruction, the attitudes of intentional polluters and the lengths to which activists must go to expose illegal activities that are destroying our planet.

However, SJWs beware. (SJW = Social Justice Warriors) Felix habitually sexualises women in his observations and in his writing. He even sexualises a woman’s black eye as being like baboon’s sex and a baby (“musty rutty sex-smell of her hair”, p 167).

Carey has joined George R R Martin’s tradition of sentient breasts: “OK, he said, and ducked away, leaving her breasts bruised and angry” (p 200).

Carey’s prose is, at times, exquisite with strong Australian overtones. One particular quote leapt out at me as being peculiarly apropos for every era in which Amnesia is set including the present day although intended to describe the events in 1975. “Misinformation rose into the sky above Canberra, like rockets that flared and died and left their lies on our retinas so we continued to see what was not true” (p 137).

I enjoyed Amnesia although I needed to read forensically to piece together ages of characters (that affect outlook and others’ perceptions of them) and the times in which Amnesia was set (that also intrinsically affects the story). I already had more than a passing familiarity with the Battle of Brisbane and the Dismissal because I studied both at high school and I come from a left-wing family with political connections; without this foundation readers may find Amnesia more difficult to read or perceive it as more far-fetched. I felt a little cheated when Gaby’s recent history and the story of the Angel worm was glossed over. I also found the latter third of the novel somewhat choppy with regards to point of view and style of prose, which contrasts with the first half. I’m giving Amnesia 4 stars.

However, read these rave reviews from prominent reviewers:

Amnesia is a raucous meditation on dissent . . . An ambitious novel that possesses some of the energy and thrilling abandon of Carey’s early works, including his short stories. It stands firm in ways reminiscent of Illywhacker . . . Carey is a writer who seems to want to celebrate, as much as to castigate, human flaws. He is sardonic and withering, but somehow optimistic. In Amnesia, the world is insidious and magnificent . . . Amnesia is both familiar and a distinctly new moment in his career.’ Patrick Allington, Australian Book Review

‘The story of WikiLeaks as if transmogrified by Dickens and turned into a thrilling fable for our post-Edward Snowden era.’ Luke Harding, The Guardian

‘The novel is a wild ride . . . Carey is Australia’s lyrebird master of dialogue, perfectly tuned to every nuance, or upward intonation, of successive generations of Australian speech . . . Effortlessly lyrical.’ Morag Fraser, The Age

‘The novel sizzles with indignation. But this isn’t its only mood. Often rumbustiously funny, it has an almost Dickensian zest for colourful characters. Scenes of the cyber-underworld and its bizarre obsessives buzz with fascination . . . Metaphorical vitality pulses through Carey’s prose.’ Peter Kemp, Sunday Times (UK)

”Carey . . . has an uncanny knack of timeliness… [Amnesia is] a political novel in the way of E.L. Doctorow . . . a rambunctious cavalcade . . . Carey is Australia’s lyrebird master of dialogue . . . a remarkable novelist.’ The Saturday Age

‘The lively 13th novel from the Australian magus Peter Carey that will leave the mind reeling. It is tremendous fun, a satiric burlesque as fast as a speeding car, barbed as only Carey can be, seething with benign rage and as black as reality . . . His inventive unpredictability is part of his appeal. The narrative energy of Amnesia is impressive, as are his brilliant handling of the many voices and his always fluent prose . . . Amnesia contains some of the sharpest characterisation Carey has written . . . Amnesia is blunt and funny, brave and outspoken . . . Carey says a great deal in an entertaining, provocative novel, weighty with polemical intent, yet he never forgets to tell a story that is as large as life and as exuberantly complicated . . . If fiction can summon the now, this novel has.’ Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

Amnesia is hilarious. You know Carey’s on about some dreadful stuff but you can’t help laughing.’ William Yeoman, West Australian

‘Possesses . . . the energy and thrilling abandon of Carey’s early works . . . . a distinctly new moment in his career.’ Australian Book Review

‘Bracing and abrasive . . . A novel about the new American empire and its repercussions around the world, about technology and, most movingly, about family. It is slippery and compelling, written with the vivid precision that marks Mr Carey’s best work.’ The Economist

‘A very funny book . . . Carey at the height of his powers . . . [He] doesn’t put a word or sentence in the wrong place . . . Amnesia is the novel for our times.’ Mark Rubbo, Readings Monthly

‘The book begins and ends in high-octane thriller mode with spectacular feats of cyberterrorism . . . Utterly captivating in its energy, its eye for the telling detail of character or location, its sudden arresting turns of phrase, its vivid and tender pictures of our places.’ Katharine England, The Advertiser (Adelaide)

‘Peter Carey is the greatest Australian writer.’ Richard Flanagan

‘Never have I read a novel in which I could see the genius of the writer’s mind so phenomenally at work. Melbourne and the Australian language have never been so celebrated. I laughed and laughed, too.’ Carmen Callil

‘I couldn’t believe I was so caught by the throat by a story about malware and cyberspace and sabotage . . . but it’s also about a dark stain of political history, about a mother and daughter, about power and brutality, about being young and furious. I thought Felix Moore in all his humanness, messiness and determination, was a masterpiece of character-making.’ Hermione Lee

‘Turbo-charged, hyperenergetic . . . Carey’s book is whirling and intricate, yet such is the excitement of the writing, we take the ride very gladly . . . Like many of Carey’s books, Amnesia generates an aura of the fantastical but is completely grounded; it is high-spirited but serious, hectic but never hasty . . . A deeply engaging book. It responds to some of the biggest issues of our time, and reminds us that no other contemporary novelist is better able to mix farce with ferocity, or to better effect.’ Andrew Motion, The Guardian

‘Felix is a brilliant character: witty and paranoid with a Carey-esque backstory . . . The heights of Amnesia are that glorious Carey way with language.’ The Saturday Paper

Amnesia is exhilaratingly suffused with Carey’s wild prodigality of invention . . . Glitters with nervy verbal inventiveness and pungent characterization . . . Poignantly human — and with a tremendous story to tell.’ Jane Shilling, Evening Standard

‘Peter Carey is such a varied and intriguing novelist there are times when it seems he can write anything . . . Curiously exhilarating.’ James Runcie, The Independent

‘Peter Carey is back in Australia with a bang . . . It’s funny, manic; so charged with energy that each sentence packs a punch – and reminds you that, at 71, Carey remains a wizard with words.’ Jennifer Byrne,Australian Women’s Weekly

‘This oh-so-relevant rage against the machine is Carey at his clever best.’ Paul Robinson, Qantas magazine

‘The brilliant Australian author explores digital activism, legacy journalism, US political interference and Australia’s collective forgetfulness about its past in this probing but rollicking novel . . . A searingly topical tale . . . Amnesia crackles with energy, is inventive in its language (not least in its profanities) but never pretentious, emphasising the value of straight talking and laughter.’ Express (UK)

‘A rollicking read.’ Courier-Mail

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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