First: that cover.
The cover art for Sam Taylor's The Amnesiac was illustrated by Julie Morstad, a Vancouver artist who had to have cut her teeth on a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Its tone is perfectly suited for the novel, ethereal yet drawn with plain black ink, creepy but hard to put a finger on exactly why.
Protagonist James Purdew breaks his ankle running up the stairs to his Amsterdam apartment to catch the telephone. Later, leg in a cast and his sweet girlfriend Ingrid nursing him back to health, James has plenty of time to remember his past, and it comes as a shock to him to realize he doesn't really remember very much at all. Specifically, three years of university in the town of H have totally vanished, leaving nothing behind but a locked box underneath his bed that contain his diaries of that period. Having lost the key and with no ability to break the box open, James becomes both listless and restless in turns, and when Ingrid tells him she has been offered a wonderful job in her hometown that will enable them to buy a home and have children and live happily ever after, James takes the opportunity to split with her and travel back to H to uncover his past.
Once in H, James accepts a job repairing an old Victorian house for a mysterious employer. He is drawn to the house in dreams, and parts of the house keep dropping hints to his past, the first chapter of a story entitled "Confessions of a Killer" covered up in the wallpaper, letters that arrive via post containing nothing but a few individual letters of the alphabet, and a ringing phone he is forbidden to answer. Names keep turning up, too, Anna, Malcolm Trewvey, Tomas Ryan, and while he uses search engines to research these people, one wonders why he didn't use The Google to do some research on himself.
Part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and part gothic mystery, The Amnesiac's disconnected sensibility is partly due to James' self-imposed isolation and partly due to the style of the novel, where stories weave inside stories and reality fades seamlessly into dreams and back again, and neither the reader nor James knows what's real and what isn't. As he draws nearer to uncovering the truth of his missing years, instead of the walls crumbling, they instead begin to close in on him, and James begins to lose faith in his own mental stability.
The Amnesiac keeps the reader at arm's length, its detached personality never really allowing the reader to get fully attached to James and what becomes of him. Nevertheless, it is gripping enough to keep you turning pages until the last secret is unlocked.
by Sam Taylor
June, 2008 by Penguin
Sunday, January 04, 2009