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Onyx reviews: Amnesia by Peter Carey

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 11/23/2014

Amnesia presents a few challenges for readers. First of all, there's the title, whose meaning eludes explanation, even late in the novel when the word first appears. Then there's the matter of the book's structure. Part 1 is the first person narrative of Felix Moore, a disgraced author who is hired to write a book about a woman whose exploits put her at risk of being extradited to the US. However, the viewpoint shifts for the second part of the book to a putative omniscient narrator whose viewpoint is restricted to Felix as he works on his story in isolation. Finally, there is the historical background upon whose shoulders the narrative rests, which will likely be unfamiliar to readers outside of Australia, and perhaps even to many of its current residents.

The book is contemporary in its topic matter, almost prescient. The woman at the center of the story, Gabrielle "Gaby" Baillieux, is a female hacker, a supposedly rare breed, as rare as female programmers and gamers. Her outrage at being dismissed for her gender echoes the recent GamerGate controversy where male gamers threaten harm to women gamers. There's also an element that can easily be associated with Australian WikiLeak's founder Julian Assange and his exposure of government secrets for the supposed betterment of society. (Carey reportedly refused to ghostwrite Assange's memoir.)

Felix Moore is an aging, overweight, heavy drinking, leftwing journalist whose book made him the target of a libel case, which he loses spectacularly. Not only is he left on the hook for heavy damages, all copies of the offending book are to be destroyed. As partial punishment, his publisher delivers a box to his home, which he dutifully sets fire to in the back yard, starting a conflagration that envelops his house. His wife has put up with his shenanigans long enough, so he finds himself temporarily homeless and, because he admitted to playing fast and loose with his journalistic methods, unemployable.

An old acquaintance (it's hard to call Woody “Wodonga” Townes a friend) takes Felix in and gives him an assignment for which he will be well compensated and, perhaps, redeemed. The daughter of a mutual friend, Celine Baillieux, has been arrested after a computer virus she unleashed on the Australian prison system to free political prisoners ran amok, infecting prisons in America and elsewhere, including some very sensitive covert internment centers. Despite the fact that she's an Australian national, the Americans are threatening to extradite her, where she will face trial as a terrorist and, possibly, face the death penalty. Felix is to become her biographer, presenting a sympathetic face to the Australian public.

Though Felix's brief is fairly specific, he's not content to simply to follow Woody's instructions. To understand Gaby Baillieux, he must delve into her past to find out where she comes from. In doing so, he accidentally uncovers information that might facilitate Gaby's extradition. In particular he digs into Celine's genealogy and incidents that took place during WWII between American soldiers stationed in Australia and some of the residents who billeted them.

Gaby defeats her monitoring bracelet and goes into hiding and so too must Felix when he's accused of harboring a fugitive. For a while he works alone at an undisclosed (even to him) location and later he's abducted and installed in a grungy hotel room while he produces pages that are being handed off to some unknown "editors."

Gaby was born in 1975 on the day that the Governor General of Australia, the Queen's representative, dissolved parliament in the midst of a threatened government shutdown. Some people believe the CIA was involved in this overthrow because of differences between the Americans and the ruling party, including the latter's threat to terminate the lease on a CIA spy post near Alice Springs. This incident is generally forgotten or overlooked historically, which is one instance of the cultural amnesia Carey alludes to in his title (there are others that date back further in time). Gaby's father is a lifelong politician with the Labor party. When the girl becomes a teenager and falls subject to the opinions and influences of others, she grows to resent her father's inaction, both in 1975 and in contemporary matters, primarily a case of a corporation being allowed to leak chemicals into the water supply.

Her actress mother is a neglectful parent who is often away on film shoots or having affairs. Gaby falls in love with Frederic Matovic, a pioneering hacker who uses a dial-up modem to break into computer systems and plunder them of information. One of her earliest experiments in social activism has tragic consequences.

Though she is the pivotal character in Amnesia, Gaby only appears "in person" twice, and even then only briefly. However, her thoughts and feelings are expressed through a series of recordings she and her mother supplied to Felix for his book. He had expected to have complete access to Gaby, to interview her, but the tapes are one-sided and not subject to interrogation. Gaby's tapes, however, are straightforward and apparently honest. Her mother's seem less trustworthy and self-aggrandizing. It is Felix's task to sort through many, many hours of these tapes (rewinding, fast-forwarding, skipping ahead) to get to the core of his story.

In the final analysis, Amnesia becomes the story of how Gaby emerged from her somewhat sheltered upbringing into becoming a computer savvy activist who is outraged by some of her society's offences. Carey traces her introduction to computers via Matovic, whose earliest exploits involve deconstructing and re-imagining the text adventure Zork, and an activist school teacher who influences her thoughts on social matters in opposition to those of her father. She blossoms into the book's only truly likable and sympathetic character, though readers may feel some twinges for Felix for the conditions he's forced to endure while he works in isolation and under duress on the book that he hopes will redeem him.

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