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Readers familiar with the previous work of two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey may be surprised to learn about the topic of his newest novel, AMNESIA. It opens in the aftermath of one of the biggest cases of presumed "hacktivism" to date --- a young woman at first known only as "Angel" uses a computer worm to infiltrate the computer systems of jails across Australia and the United States, unlocking computer-monitored cell doors and disarming high-tech alarm systems, thereby freeing thousands of criminals. Her motive and method are unclear, but one thing is certain, at least according to her champions: the person who should bring her story to life and elicit sympathy for her cause (whatever that is) is the journalist Felix Moore. Felix is an indefatigable investigative journalist, and if he has a tendency to embellish the facts, that's no great concern in this case.

"Carey's vibrant, energetic prose, as well as his ability to spin a great story (or two, or three), is...on display here as in his beloved, award-winning earlier work."

As it turns out, Felix is about to have some time on his hands. That tendency toward creativity, particularly with his quotes, has just resulted in his most recent conviction for defamation and the pulping of his latest book. He was on financially rocky ground to begin with, not to mention the perilous state of his personal life. But when his wife kicks him out, and he (accidentally, he swears) sets fire to their house on his way out, he feels about ready to give up altogether. That is, until he is approached by an old friend or two, one of whom happens to be the beautiful Celine Baillieux, estranged mother of the aforementioned "Angel" (whose real name is Gaby).

All this happens in the book's first two-dozen or so pages, a breezy, borderline frenetic ride that will leave readers wondering how this nearly farcical, quasi-political novel fits into Peter Carey's oeuvre, which is chock-full of historical fiction. That becomes clearer as Felix begins to tell the backstories that make up the bulk of AMNESIA, which range from a little-known altercation from World War II (the so-called Battle of Brisbane --- look it up) to the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis (sometimes known simply as "the Dismissal"), both of which play primary roles not only in the political underpinnings of the novel, but also in the very personal histories of its central characters.

Although much of the contemporary narrative --- especially Felix's initial curmudgeonly resistance to and eventual investment in telling Gaby's story --- is engaging and genuinely funny, the reader's imaginations and sympathies are likely to be roused primarily in these historical vignettes, which unfold in bits and pieces, much as Felix himself pieces together Gaby's own history.

American readers may find themselves perplexed at best (and put off at worst) by Carey's heavy focus on Australian history and politics, which often have a pointed negativity toward America. The "amnesia" of Carey's title refers to his countrymen's (or maybe all of our) tendency to forget seemingly significant episodes from relatively recent national history, a trend that clearly perturbs Carey. This angle, as well as the narrative's abandonment of Felix's first-person narration just as the reader is starting to become fond of him ("These pugnacious habits had served me well for a whole career but the story of this young woman demanded I become a larger person, a man who had it in his heart to love our stinking human clay"), may make AMNESIA a tough read for many. But Carey's vibrant, energetic prose, as well as his ability to spin a great story (or two, or three), is nevertheless still on display here as in his beloved, award-winning earlier work.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2015

by Peter Carey

  • Publication Date: December 8, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0804171327
  • ISBN-13: 9780804171328