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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
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
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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