Amnesia is the story of an Australian journalist who becomes embroiled in the defence of an internet activist. It touches on Australian history and specifically the downfall of the Whitlam Labour government in 1975.
The novel is in two distinct parts. In the first we hear the story of the journalist’s own life, and his links with Australian politicians and artists. His unrequited love for the actress Celine, mother of said internet activist, began at university, where they were part of a group that went on to become prominent in Australian society. In the first part Carey focuses on his relationship with Celine, and on her early life, including her uncertain parentage, the possibility that her father was an American GI, and her marriage to an Australian Labour politician. He writes their story whilst in dialogue with Celine, and we hear about The Battle of Brisbane, during which American and Australian soldiers fought in the streets – oversexed and over here.
This section is of some interest, particularly the history of Celine, which Felix, the journalist, imagines in a very vivid but unflattering way.
In the second part of the novel Felix writes the story of Celine’s daughter Gaby, and of Frederic – internet hackers facing extradition to the USA because of their hacking activity. He has been employed to write a biography that will create sympathy for Gaby and impede extradition proceedings. This is by far the best part of the book, as Gaby and her gangly lover are really quite interesting characters. The story is interrupted by scenes in which Felix is writing in his hideaway in the swamps, and these sections introduce some tension.
The focus of the novel is ostensibly the relationship between Australia and the USA, which recurs in various guises – Celine’s parentage, The Battle of Brisbane, the extradition, and Felix’s allegation that there were links between Gough Whitlam’s withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam and the downfall of Whitlam’s Labour government. In fact this is part of a broader theme of individual and democratic rights. The power of Murdoch’s press is a key factor in the downfall of Whitlam, which in turn relates specifically to the debate about Australian republicanism: an elected prime minister dismissed by an agent of the Queen of England.
Lots of this is Australian politics that isn’t really very interesting to an ordinary reader like me, but I do have strong republican views, and a strong antipathy to the power of the establishment, and of the press barons, so from this perspective the ideas were of interest – see my recent review of Owen Jones’ The Establishment.
As for the novel – well Carey is a very gifted and clever writer. The novel is dynamic and lively, full of events and yet with a serious intent. Despite this I found it a bit of a struggle, and hard to follow in places. It only really got going in the second half, and the ending was just a little bit fatuous. I remember a primary school teacher criticising me for writing a story which ended when I woke up and realised it was a dream. He saw through me – the class had been dismissed to play time, and I wanted out too!! Instead I was forced to finish the story. Carey’s ending isn’t as easy as that, but I did get the feeling that he was locking up shop, perhaps in a bit of a rush to get down to the beach whilst the sun was still shining.