The Amnesiac

James Purdew cannot remember a few things. A few years, come to think of it. They seem to have just slipped his mind. And it's not as though he can simply consult his journals to refresh his memory, because the journals for those three years seem to be locked in a small safe that can only be cracked via explosives and he's misplaced the key.

In the first scene of Sam Taylor's The Amnesiac, James is rushing up the stairs to answer a telephone in the Amsterdam flat that he shares with his girlfriend, Ingrid -- and he breaks a bone, which leaves his leg in a cast. It is the day before his thirtieth birthday. After a few weeks of recuperation, their relationship unravels, though not explosively by any means. Ingird leaves to take a job where, if he went with her, he could see his life neatly mapped out for him and James is unwilling to continue along such a clear path. After the break-up, a chance encounter with Ingrid's brother conveys to him the message that Ingrid hopes James can work things out with Anna. The name means virtually nothing to James, but it does give him a flash image of recognition, even if he has no idea who Anna might be. He feels compelled to discover the secret of those missing years -- for really, with such a hole in his memory, he starts to question a good amount of the rest of his memories, too. So James returns to H (an specified university town) in the UK, where he went those missing years occurred. He begins to restore a house owned by an unknown Client, and James becomes convinced that he knew this place during those missing years. Alternately becoming obsessed with rebuilding the house and peeling back the layers of his own past, James becomes a kind of detective, digging up clues to discover what secrets are out there, even if they would best be forgotten.

Oddly (or perhaps fittingly), I cannot remember the recommendation or review that caused me to put The Amnesiac on my short-list of books to read. Book club books and other titles wormed their way into my hands before I could finally reach for it upon my shelf, and without glancing at the back cover to refresh myself of the plot (and I had forgotten most of that, beyond simply that it featured a man trying to discover something about himself that he had forgotten), I started to read.

And I could not put it down.

It's hard to describe this novel, as its appeal wasn't necessarily in the linear story. Indeed, when discussing it with others as I was still reading it, the only thing I would say is that I feared it might collapse, becoming too clever to sustain itself. And while it didn't collapse, I also didn't feel entirely satisfied with its resolution. What I did enjoy, though, was the tone of everything... when things started to spiral out of control, the language kept up as you moved along at breakneck speed, but then slowed with James's (and the reader's) attempt to understand. The details helped this, without beating you over the head with clues (though James himself keeps a box quaintly labeled "CLUES"). And these details, like common initials in a story within the story that James finds under the wallpaper or flashes of what must be memories, are what James and the reader cling to as we move along. The reader is allowed to feel satisfied with guessing when things are a bit fishy and while a handful of instances resulted in my guesses being spot on, there were an equal number of times where I felt the bottom drop as I struggled with a new twist. If you couldn't tell already, reality is a bit of a dodgy concept for James Purdew, but it's certainly interesting. I particularly enjoyed a conversation between James and Philip Larkin, where James calls Larkin out on being dead. The details scattered throughout, too, were great -- shining moments of how imperfect our recognition of details can be and what exactly we choose to recall about scenes.

So the novel might not be perfect, but it's certainly fascinating. I mean, if you were to summarize the simple plot of the novel, it involves a newly-thirty man struggling to understand his past and what it all means. That hardly sounds original, but I'm quite pleased with Taylor's twists on it.

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