Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey


Peter Carey’s latest book is one that I have some mixed feelings about.

Felix Moore is a discredited left-wing journalist. Brought down by the Establishment and successfully sued for defamation he is shunned, bankrupted and unemployed.

As the doors of the mainstream media closed to anyone unworldly enough to write the truth, I still published ‘Lo-Tech Blog’, a newsletter printed on acid paper which was read by the entire Canberra Press Gallery and all of parliament besides. Don’t ask how we paid our electricity bill.

He friend Woody Wodonga Townes comes to his rescue employing him to write the biography of ‘ Angel’ ,a  hacker who has released a worm into the computer systems of the Australian and US prison systems ,unlocking the doors and freeing the inmates.

Felix sees the Tolstoyan possibilities of this when he discovers that Angel is none other than Gaby Ballieux, daughter of Celine Ballieux and Sando Quinn, classmates of his in University in Melbourne.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Is there a more famous line in all of literature? Is there a greater writer than Tolstoy? Only in some lost corner of the earth, in a shack above the Hawkesbury for instance, might you find a winecaked fool thinking to himself – hang on Tolstoy, not so slick: it may not be a case of either/or.

Felix has long been addressed by what he calls The Great Amnesia – Australia’s complicated relationship with the US which, in his view, produced a CIA plot to bring down the Whitlam government in 1975 when the continued use of the Pine Gap listening facility was under threat.

We were naive of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese . We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.

So we are taken on a romp through recent Australian political history, starting with the Brissy Riots during WW2, when American servicemen were attacked by an enraged local mob, and ending with a Wikileaks inspired plot to expose all that is wrong with global corporate control.

This is a novel that Carey clearly cares deeply about and there is much to enjoy here.Felix rails against the hypocrisy of the current Australian government,

In Lo-Tech Blog, I revealed the Australian press’s cowardly reporting of the government lies about the refugees aboard the ill-fated Oolong.

‘I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard’ said our Prime Minister.

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelseque immensity. The fourth estate made the whole country believe the refugees were animal and swine. Many think so still.

Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

Felix is a classic Carey creation and his acerbic commentary on modern Australian life and self-deprecating humour are the joys of the book.

I did not however find this a particularly easy book to read, in fact at times I struggled to continue.

Firstly, the many cultural references were entirely lost on me. The book is largely set in Melbourne with frequent references to particular suburbs the significance of which are not explained.I suspect that several of the characters are representations of Australian public figures, again I floundered.

Felix’s voice is strong and engaging but the book , in part, is effectively narrated by Celine and then Gaby, as he is given access to tape recordings of their version of events. The frequent changes in voice together with leaps to and fro in time made following the events extremely difficult.

Finally, one of Carey’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to entirely inhabit the worlds he creates whether that is Dickensian London in Jack Maggs; the 19th Century outback in Oscar and Lucinda ; or the web of international art fraud in Fake. Here he convincingly creates the world of the early computer gamers turned hackers. Computer geeks, however, do not make engaging narrators . They are introverted and spend long periods of time closeted with other like-minded obsessives speaking a language that most of us find hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. Carey is one of only three writers to have won the Booker Prize twice but I fear Amnesia does not quite measure up to his earlier works.

My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.


18 thoughts on “Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

  1. I enjoyed your review, thanks. I have been trying to review it on my own blog but am struggling, to be honest. I thought it was terrible, a really bad piece of writing, and it is hard to put into words quite why I disliked it so much. At times I thought Faber might have uploaded an unfinished version of the book.

    Your review has given me heart, though. The British press have been really positive about it so I was encouraged to read a review from someone nearer to my own opinion. Nicely done.

    • Thanks very much . I so wanted to like it as i admire his writing hugely and i think it was very heart felt . At it’s best i thought it was fab and very funny ……but o dear, at its worst ……

  2. I was looking forward to this so disappointed to hear you don’t think it’s his best – very well reasoned though. I’ll still read it and, in a funny way, I’m more interested to see what I think!

  3. I read some of Cary’s other works like Oscar and Lucinda which I loved but found History of the Kelly Gang and Jack Maggs really dry and hard going. Can’t say this one appeals much though it is obviously very different to those novels.

    • I did want to like it as i am a big admirer of his work but i found it very difficult . I hope i have been fair in my review. At times i thought it was inspired but at others i really did struggle .

  4. I’d been looking forward to this as I’ve really enjoyed the other Carey books I’ve read, in particular Parrot and Olivier in America, which I loved when I read it last year. However your post, the comments and what I read elsewhere make me think I might look forward to the book that follows Amnesia instead!

    • Well its just my opinion AND there have been some very positive reviews in the press. I didnt think it was awful and i am glad i read it but i dont think it’s as good as others of his .

    • Well it was a bit of a curate’s egg ….it was disappointing as i admire his writing v much . But it wasnt terrible , at its best it was fast paced and very funny .

  5. What an excellent review that gives us all enough information to decide if this is one for us. I’m not so sure about this one as I find it hard reading a book where I know I’m missing references as I know I’m missing out.

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