Review: Sam Taylor has crafted an unquestionably stylish and imaginative though somewhat unsatisfactory (maybe unsettling is a better term) novel of a man's quest to discover several missing years from his past in The Amnesiac.
After breaking his ankle rushing up the stairs of his Amsterdam apartment, James Purdew has little to do but ponder his present, his future, and his past. When his girlfriend suddenly leaves him, he decides to look into his past as a way of helping guide him in the future. Through the years he has faithfully written a journal, but three years are locked in a strongbox, the key long lost. In an attempt to reconstruct that time period, he begins to write his past in reverse chronological order, beginning with the present. Titling his effort Memoirs of an Amnesiac, he realizes while writing that in order to be faithful to the facts, he must return to his native England where he settles into an abandoned house, offering to renovate it in lieu of paying rent. All is proceeding well until he discovers a manuscript hidden in the house titled Confessions of a Killer, the text of which bears a striking similarity to his fleeting memory of his missing years. But the manuscript is dated 1893 and couldn't possibly have anything to do with his present or his past. Or could it?
Taylor unabashedly manipulates the reader through the labyrinth that is The Amnesiac. In fact, the word "labyrinth" is used repeatedly in a variety of contexts, at times to excess, as if repeating the word somehow reinforces its very state of being. At one point, James muses, "Someone should write a true-to-life detective story; 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, or half-grasped, at various moments during its narrative; to be sensed throughout, like a nagging tune that you cannot quite remember, but never 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." Better words cannot be written to describe The Amnesiac; it is all this and more.
One puzzling aspect of the story is the manner in which it is told. Early on it's made clear that someone is narrating the tale of David's quest with the narrator occasionally reverting to first person. Consider this passage: "You may wonder how I can possibly know all this; how I can see all the quicksilver, gossamer visions that flicker inside James Purdew's mind, how I can feel every heart-swell and nerve-twitch in his body. But that, for the moment, must remain my little secret." Without giving too much away, it isn't much of a secret and it seems odd that Taylor takes this approach as it does eliminate much of the potential suspense that might have been generated otherwise.
Though an admirable effort in many ways, in the end (and maybe especially in the manner in which the story does end), The Amnesiac doesn't quite deliver on its premise.
Acknowledgment: Penguin Group provided a copy of The Amnesiac for this review.
Review Copyright © 2008 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Location(s) referenced in The Amnesiac: Amsterdam, London
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The Amnesiac by Sam Taylor
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: June 2008
List Price: $14.00