Ah, where to start on this entangled, undisciplined, dissonant, amazing carnivore of a book? A ragged, shredded, broken-toothed affair, a story of Australia related by a melange of unpredictable and wounded characters with inarticulate and blasted dialogue embedded in even more unpredictable careening narratives, alternating first person, third person, shifting between reliable and unreliable narrators and different character’s perspectives, sometimes multiple times on a single page. The characters live shambolically within dysfunctional families, battling their own warped and broken personalities, and amidst political conspiracies, real and imagined (what do you know of the coup of 1975? The Battle of Brisbane in 1942? The CIA spying facility near Alice Springs? Me too. I had to look them up).
If this introduction to Amnesia seems a little hallucinatory, it is because that is how it feels reading this wondrous and complex story, at least from time to time. It is partially about a unhappy and outspoken young girl, Gaby, unable to fully escape from her warring parents, who becomes a teenage political activist and eventually a hacker, unleashing global mischief on a truly grand scale. It is partially about a celebrated Australian journalist, now shamed and brought low for crimes only hinted at (making up news stories?) who is kidnapped and forced to write Gaby’s life story (Gaby and her hacktivists are fugitives). It is partially about the history of left wing politics in Australia. It is partially about the parts of Australia we never see – poverty and crime and alcoholism and messed up schoolkids and corporate malfeasance and US domestic interference and the convenient ententes of backroom politics.
The many characters in this book are huge, they come at the reader like a herd of elephants, trampling any expectations of subtlety and patient character development. They are in your face from the first page, and the reader’s empathies are treated with disdain – we like and dislike them in equal measure and at different times, a reasonable facsimile, I suppose, for the real people in our lives. The story is deep and robust and complex – at times claustrophobic, beautiful, shocking, even incomprehensible (I struggled to understand what was going for the first 75 pages) – with Australian left wing politics and environmental activism and the weakness of men fueling 376 pages of dizzying construction.
Once I loved Peter Carey (twice Booker winner, and reigning monarch of Australian fiction, along with Tim Winton). Then I read some books I didn’t like and moved on to other authors. Now I am re-energised by him. A bit out of breath, perhaps, exhausted by this book, amazed by his language skills and acrobatic scaffolds. A great book? Not quite, but so different to anything I have read in a while that I must say – read this, with your literary crash helmets firmly secured. It is a wild journey on a bumpy road.