Oct 29, 2009

The Amnesiac by Sam Taylor

The Amnesiac by Sam Taylor

It all begins one summer when James Purdew is climbing the stairs of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend in Amsterdam. He falls and breaks his ankle, but more worrisome than the accident is the fact that for a moment, just before it happens, he cannot remember who he is at all. Trapped in the apartment during a heat wave, James becomes obsessed with his past - specifically with three years of his life, the years he spent at university in the city of H., about which he can remember nothing. James has kept diaries for years, but unfortunately the diaries of those years are locked inside a box, and James has lost a key.

When his relationship falls apart, James decides to return to England, to the city of H., so that he can find out the truth about his past. There, he finds a job restoring an old house that seems vaguely familiar, and when he uncovers the manuscript of an incomplete Victorian mystery, that story, too, seems more familiar than it has any right to be...

One thing is certain: The Amnesiac is one of the most original books I've read in a very long time. It's a murder mystery that isn't quite a murder mystery; it's a psychological thriller; it's a Gothic story complete with creepy mansion; it's a story about a man's search for his identity; it's a reflection on memory, its loss, and the extent to which what we remember makes us who we are; and it's a surreal tale with a sci-fi twist. I was hooked from the very start, and I had trouble putting it down. At the same time, however, I'm not sure how satisfying a story it is. I'll let you know why, but it will take some explaining, so please bear with me.

The Amnesiac reminded me quite a bit of authors like Haruki Murakami or Jonathan Carroll (and also of movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Those of you who are fans of these authors will know that it's best not to expect definitive answers at the end of their books. Likewise, it's probably best not to expect them from The Amnesiac. I think I do know exactly what happens in this book - I think I have the answers. But another reader might think exactly the same and have come up with an entirely different set of answers. So yes, the solution to the mystery is ambiguous, and it's presented obliquely. I didn't find this frustrating, but I'm not sure it worked either. I realize that the ambiguity, the fact that the story isn't neat or satisfying, is very much a part of what The Amnesiac is trying to do. But the thing is, sometimes the story almost tried to be too clever and self-conscious for its own good.

There was something else that rubbed me the wrong way. In some of the book's most surreal moments, there were - ah, little sneering speeches about those foolish, arrogant people who believe in things like "science" or "logic" or "reason"; those silly and arrogant skpetics, ha ha ha. Some of the characters who say these things are unreliable to say the least, so it's not necessarily true that the book is endorsing what they say. And needless to say, everyone's entitled to their worldview, but there was something about the mocking tone that really got to me. But this is a bit of a sore spot for me, so it's possible that other readers wouldn't notice it at all.

I wasn't surprised to see that Sam Taylor thanks Oliver Sacks at the end of the book, as there were parts that reminded me quite a bit of him. The thing about Sacks, thought, the reason why I love him so, is that he loves science. His books are full of respect and appreciation for it, as well as of warmth and humanity. He realizes that dehumanizing people is in no way an intrinsic characteristic of the scientific method (and why must people keep forgetting that science is a method?), and that doing what he does, which is look at each of his patients as a person, does not mean that he has to dissociate himself from science. But this is probably not the place for me to channel Ben Goldacre, so I'll shut up about it now.

Moving on to the things I loved: I loved The Amnesiac's noir, nightmareish mood, as well as the occasional dark humour. I loved all the references to literature and music - The Go-Betweens! Also, Jorge Luís Borges and Philip Larkin play an important role in the story. I also loved that it was thoughtful and philosophical while still having a very exciting plot. One of the cleverest things about The Amnesiac is the narration, and sadly I can't say too much about that without spoilers. But after a certain point you begin to notice that what we're dealing with here isn't an ordinary third person narrator, thanks to passages such as this:
You may wonder how I can possibly know all this; how I can see the quicksilver, gossamer visions that flicker inside James Purdew’s mind, how I can feel every heart-swell an nerve-twitch in his body. But that, for the moment, must remain my little secret.
These passages become more and more frequent as the story progresses, and they're quite alarming, as I'm sure they're meant to be. This little extra mystery adds a new dimension to the story, which I thought was very well done.

In the end, I suspect that The Amnesiac is a love it or hate it sort of book. It's a bit funny that I'm saying this, considering that I neither loved it nor hated it, but I hope you're forgive me: it's just one of those odd books that I'm not quite sure how I feel about. But I'm definitely glad to have read it, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Sam Taylor's work in the future.

Interesting bits:
The boxes contained his diaries. These were his most valuable possessions, not because they held any astonishing secrets, but because without them he feared he would cease to be the same person. James did not trust his memory. He relied on the diaries to do much the remembering for him. They were the ropes that moored him to himself.

But hope, I can tell you, is an exhausting emotion; perhaps, along with fear, the most exhausting of all. It is like juggling eggs: the hope is the shell, and inside is despair. A single crack and the despair might spill everywhere, stain everything.

Someone should write a true-to-life detective story, James thought bleakly; an existential mystery in which the answer is not to be found, clear and logical, at the book’s end, but only to be glimpsed, of half-grasped, at various moments during its narrative; to be sensed throughout, like a nagging tune that you cannot quite remember, but ever defined, never seen whole; to shift its shape and position and meaning with each passing day; to be sometimes forgotten completely, other times obsessed over, but never truly understood; not to be something walked towards but endlessly around.
(Which is actually a pretty good way of describing The Amnesiac.)

Other Opinions:
Bookgirl’s Nightstand (Thank you again for sending me this book, Iliana!)
Cheryl’s Book Nook
Books I'm Reading

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Well, I guess as a reader of this review, I am uncertain also. I love vague, original plots (loved Memento and Spotless Mind), and I'm wondering if your annoyances would be my annoyances. I tend to be sort of clueless about these things. I'm writing this down...I may have to try!

  2. Thanks for this review. I will read this book! Haruki Murakami and Jonathan Carroll seen an odd pairing, as I love one and have kept trying to enjoy the other without success, but you are right about lack of definitiveness. Maybe I prefer Murakami because his is a more definitive lack of definitiveness, if that makes any sense.

    The cover is interesting. It looks like an artist has found a niche for themself by working in the style of the late, great Edward Gorey.

  3. I love the cover, but don't think I'll pursue this book. If it drops in my lap, I might give it a try.

  4. I am glad that this book is already in my TBR pile as you have me intrigued! I found his next novel, The Island at the End of the World, to be highly original despite being imbued with stories as old as time such as Genesis and later The Tempest; it also has an ending that needs to be interpreted.

  5. It does sound like an intriguing read (I like weird) despite its shortcomings.

  6. It sounds like something I would read, even if it turned out that I didn't like it a lot. I like atmosphere in my reading and it sounds like this one has it. And ambiguous endings don't bother me (usually).

    I wanted to mention to you that I recently read Looking for Alaska per your recommendation and I LOVED it! I want to read it again someday. I was meaning to send it on to my granddaughter, but I think I'll just have to buy her a copy. I'm not sure when I will write a review (I don't seem to stay on top of my writing) so I wanted to make sure I told you that I really did like it! Now I have to go out and get The General In His Labyrinth by Marquez ;o)

  7. Okay...that's really odd. It sounded so good to start, but then your description of it made it go downhill...I don't know. I think I'd have to try it from the library first?

  8. I'm pleased to hear that you thought this book was original, but disappointed that you didn't love it.

    I loved The Island at the End of the World, so am looking forward to reading this one. I hope that I enjoy it a bit more than you did.

  9. I'm sorry to hear that you didn't love this one, but so many of the good things that you point out about this make me feel like I have to try it. I love books that delve into the issue of memory and identity - even if they aren't entirely successful, I always find them so thoughtprovoking. Of course, I am working towards a PhD in science-related field, so it will likely annoy me when I reach parts that pooh pooh logic and reason... but I guess that's in line with this being a provocative read!

  10. You had me at Gothic and creepy mansion and then you lost me. I am wondering whether to give it a go. I am intrigued by it.

  11. Sandy, I'd definitely recommend giving it a try!

    Traputo: That does make sense - and yes, I prefer Murakami too. It has happened a few times that the ending of one of Carroll's books has ruined it for me. And I hadn't thought of that, but good point about the cover!

    Kathy, that's more or less what happened with me :P

    Claire, I'll have to give that one a try also. I definitely want to keep an eye on Sam Taylor! I barely mentioned the writing in my post, but I liked it a lot.

    Lenore: The shortcomings were very "me", thought, so I can see other people LOVING this!

    Terri B: It does have loads of atmosphere! That's really how I felt - even if undecided about it overall, I'm glad I read it. And hooray! I'm so glad you loved Alaska :D You must read his other books too!

    Amanda: That's what my reading experience was like, actually :P And yes, try the library. It's VERY difficult to predict whether someone would like this book!

    Jackie: There were things about it that I did love, though! And I definitely still plan to read The Island at the End of the World.

    Steph: For extra annoyance, one of the little speeches is exactly about neuroscience/psychology. But I'd say give it a try regardless! There's plenty to love about it, and it was thought-provoking like you said.

    Vivienne: Like I was telling Amanda, it's really hard to guess whether you'd like this, but one thing I can promise: it will stay with you.

  12. I think I will try this one. For one thing (I know this is shallow)--that cover! I love that cover! It would have drawn me straight to it in the book store. Sometimes clever books can be exhausting, but when the mood is right, they can be wonderful. I loved Special Topics in Calamity Physics, for example, and I know some people absolutely hate it. But it drew me in (on the second attempt, I should mention), so maybe this will be another one of those books.

  13. I really enjoyed what you had to say about this book but I don't think it is one for me. However, I always like to hear what you think about what you've read.

  14. This sounds interesting - I'll add it to my list. I might take issue with some of the same things you mentioned, though. I dislike when authors try to be too clever. The writing often ends up feeling forced to me.

  15. I was uncertain (because I like Oliver Sacks, too) until I read the last of your quotes. That sold me. Worth a try, anyway. But I will keep your reservations in mind. Thank you.

  16. This is the first time I heard of this. Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are two of my favorite movies. But as for Carroll, you do know how I feel about the book I read :P

    The title is probably worth a try once I get around my own personal stumbling blocks, I mean my own TBR :)

    And I like the passages the you quoted.

  17. This definitely sounds like an intriguing book, but I'm not sure if it's a book that I would enjoy. However, if I run across it, I will give it a try. :)

  18. It sounds like this is a book that defies being pigeonholed in a genre. Very intriguing! Thank you for another lovely, intelligent review.

  19. I'm drawn to the premise! I think it sounds quite intriguing. I'd have to give this a try. Thanks for the lovely review, Nymeth! :)

  20. Everything you tell me about this novel makes me want to read it more and more!!

  21. Hmmmmm...I never know how I'm going to feel about love/hate kind of books. But this sounds original/quirky enough I'd probably like it. Will definitely be on the lookout for it.

  22. Priscilla: Hehe, the cover IS irresistible! And do try it! I think mood is important when it comes to books like this one, yes. For example, people have said that Jonathan Safran Foer tries too hard to be clever, but I just LOVE his stuff!

    Staci: Aww, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts anyway.

    Charley: Yeah, that was the problem - there were bits that felt a bit forced. But that's just me!

    ds: I think my post ended up sounding more negative than I intended it too. I'd recommend this despite my reservations!

    Lightheaded: They're some of my favourite movies EVAH too! And yep, I remember about Carroll :P

    heidenkind: Yes, do!

    Stephanie: Exactly! And I really liked that about it :)

    Melody, you're most welcome!

    Lu, you'll get a kick out of the Larkin scenes for sure :D

    Stephanie, it's quirky for sure. I hope you do like it!

  23. What a neat concept! It's always great to find something new and psychologically thrilling, but I understand what you mean about people trying to be too clever. You just want to push them and be like 'you are not that clever! no, no, no!!!'

  24. Amanda and I are totally on the same page, today. This one started out sounding so good and then . . . nah. I'm just beginning a book-buying ban, so I guess I should be happy it didn't sound like a must read!

  25. Okay, so I was totally sold. Until you reached the mocking of science bit. You already know that we're so on the same page there. I'm afraid I would get so aggravated...I'm just so upset by the assault on science in this country--and it seems like there's some new attack every day. Just not sure I want to subject myself to more of that crap, even in fiction. I know, I know, sort of petty of me, huh?

  26. She: lol! There were moments that made me feel that way ;) But honestly, it's as much me as the book.

    Bookfook: lol, I know the feeling :P Good luck with your ban!!

    Debi: There's much about this book I think you'd like, but I won't lie to you: those parts would drive you NUTS :P

  27. I'm not sure I'd read this. I've read one of Jonathan Carroll's books but didn't quite like it...

  28. I love Murakami and loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so looks like this one's for me!

  29. I'm glad you got a chance to read this one and I agree it's an odd book. There were things I really liked, how he described his life and lack of direction but then the book just never quite reeled me in. I would definitely try something else by that author though. I think there's a lot of potential there!

  30. I appreciated your commentary on The Amnesiac. I have a blog entry about it also! I like that we both noted the book's ambiguity, and we both quoted the same passage (the one I feel describes the book itself).


  31. Hi Nymeth, I'm the author of this novel - so I just wanted to say thanks for the interesting, intelligent review. The book was written about five years ago, and was kind of my 'difficult second novel', so in some ways I agree with your criticisms of it being too clever and self-conscious etc. To put this in perspective, though, it really is a roman a clef - almost embarrassingly autobiographical - and some of the narrative devices and philosophising is a way of diverting the reader from the underlying heartache. Whether that makes it any better, I don't know. One thing I would like to defend myself about, however, is the idea that I was sneering at science: that isn't the case. I read a lot of science books (particularly about memory and neurology) as research for this novel, and was never less than fascinated. The parts you're referring to, I think, occur mostly in odd situations - eg the scene in the pub where the narrator is surrounded by astrologers. There, it was an inversion of everyday reality, which is why the astrologers were mocking the narrator for his belief in logic, facts etc. So for everyone put off by the idea that The Amnesiac is anti-science... well, it's not. At worst, it subscribes to a worldview a bit like that described in Neil Gaiman's quote at the top of this blog. I hope everyone who reads the book gets something out of it, whether you love it, hate it, or feel something in between...

    Sam Taylor

  32. Sam Taylor: Thank you for stopping by! I wanted to clarify that I wasn't saying that the book itself was condoning what was said during those odd moments - it was the characters that annoyed me, not the book. On the other hand, I've gotten into enough heated arguments in my younger days that started with statements like those to react a bit strongly to the sneering, even in a fictional context....thus my rant. But I certainly hope nobody will avoid the book on that account! I most definitely did get something out of it, and look forward to reading more of your work :)

    Kathy: Thank you - I added your link! Isn't that passage a perfect description of the book?

    Iliana: Agreed! And thank you again for sending it to me :)

    Joanna: As do I :D Enjoy!

    Alice: Sorry to hear you didn't have much luck with Carroll! He seems to be a bit hit or miss.

  33. I just finished Amnesiac.

    I agree with everything you say, BUT I sure would have liked to have read your version of the ENDING... Who the hell knows?

    Yes, the last ten pages really get messy in terms of continuity and meaning and everything. And, honestly, by that point I was getting darn angry at Taylor's drunken word-dancing and I in no way had the effort nor the motivation or even an inkling why I should try and find such effort.

    I found the ending brutal. It does intrigue, the book, but it gets so frustrating as you try to piece things together which are senseless. It's like a cruel joke.

    I'm a professional writer and books like this leave me ... livid, as so much good fiction is missed and so much bad is published. Amnesiac is bad as in self-indulgent obfuscation; I hope Sam liked writing it because he left me in pain, financial and professional.

    And spare me the cliches 'oh, he's writing for himself'... 'oh it's all subjective'... if you believe that stuff, why read reviews?

    Films or books, I will play 'puppet' only so long without reward, or at least some skill to marvel.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.