Tuesday, December 30, 2008
weekly book review: the amnesiac, by sam taylor
Fittingly, I have no recollection of where I heard about The Amnesiac, and I only have the haziest remembrance of purchasing it.  Weirdly, it's as if the little sucker just magically *appeared!* on my bookshelf, where it then sat, gathering dust for ages.  And it may have continued to gather dust for quite some time to come, however I spent a lot of time on the road this holiday season and the book I had been reading just wasn't doing it for me.  I needed something else, something readable, something fun and something preferably in paperback.

Enter The Amnesiac.:

After breaking his leg on the stairs of his Amsterdam apartment, James Purdew suddenly finds he has time to do something he hasn't done in a long time:  think.  And as tends to be the case, the more he thinks, the more trouble he finds.  His life in Amsterdam starts to fall apart as James becomes increasingly obsessed with three years of his life that have become lost to his memory, those being the years he spent as a college student in the town of H.  An avid journaler, James has three journals detailing his life during those missing years, but, for some reason, those journals are locked up in a black safe he keeps under his bed, and he has no idea where the key could be.  Clearly, something very bad happened in H., something he once chose to forget, but something he is now hell-bent on remembering.

In an attempt to unlock the mystery of those missing years, James must become the detective of his own mystery.  He returns to the British town of H., gets a job fixing up the crumbling remnants of the house where he once lived, and starts unearthing clues to who he was and what happened to him there.  The deeper James digs, the stranger things get, as the plot takes a bit of a Gothic turn, where suddenly a 19th century manuscript becomes a key to unlocking the mystery of James' own past.

To paraphrase the blurb on the back of the book, The Amnesiac is described as a time travel book without a time machine, a science fiction book without the aliens, and a murder mystery without the murder.  This description is pretty apt, and is a large part of why I liked it so much, despite the fact that it wasn't the most original premise for a book.  (At times, the plot felt quite similar to films like Vanilla Sky and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.)  But even if similar stories have been told before, Taylor sprinkled heavy references to Borges, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Freudian psychology, Heaven and Hell, and Descartes' solipsistic brand of philosophy (i.e.: "I think, therefore I am.") into his story, using them as clues that continued to keep me thinking and guessing until the end.  In The Amnesiac, Taylor has created something more original and intelligent than your average dimestore mystery novel, while still managing to craft a tale that was a whole lot of fun to read.

After skimming some other reviews of this book, it seems as if many folks didn't like it as much as I did, complaining that the ending wasn't very satisfying and that Taylor was a little heavy-handed with the references to Borges and Freud.  And those are complaints that I can certainly understand.  The Amnesiac is hardly a perfect novel. However, I thoroughly loved it, warts and all.  While reading, I, like James, became a detective - underlining clues, scribbling in the margins, and working the story over in my mind long after finishing it.  

In short, I can't remember the last time I had so much fun reading a book.  I'm not sure whether or not I fell in love with The Amnesiac,  but I certainly thought about it a lot when it wasn't around.

Sam Taylor
383 pages, 2007

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