Review: AMNESIA by Michael Ridpath, published by Corvus in May 2017
Trade Paperback: 9781782397564 at £12.99
ebook: 9781782397571 at £5.99
Okay, I have a confession to make here. I hadn’t heard of Michael Ridpath when he first started writing. I was a lowly author of three or four books, and it was my sister-in-law who persuaded me to pick up a copy of THE MARKET MAKER and read it. And it was a “Wow” moment when I did.
There are some books that grab you slowly, and you have to give it time. It may be that it’s writing about a situation you have no knowledge of, such as a football club in a favela in Sao Paulo where all the players are transvestites, or a book about someone with incredible courage (or stupidity) who puts himself into danger every five minutes. But you give them time, there’s something really nasty about leaving a book half read. I don’t like to do it, not even now. In fact, when I was a kid, I couldn’t do it. There was one book, THE WORM OUROBOROS, which is here in my office now, somewhere, and which I doubt very much I’ll ever read to the last page. Similarly there’s the grim tale of a castle somewhere that’s collapsing. I tried, and I failed to get far into that. I couldn’t get to page 100 of Patricia Cornwell’s ISLE OF DOGS, and there was another book about a unicorn flying over New York that got a similar raspberry in my memory.
Now. Having said that, there are other books, books where you barely have to open the cover, where you know that the author is taking you into familiar territory, and where you will be comfortable and understand everything in moments.
Michael Ridpath is one of those writers.
He has written about money traders, about financiers and about obscure places I’ve never been to up in the wild northern seas, but every time I come away from his books knowing more about those places.
Perhaps it is Michael’s depiction of places. I have always used Dartmoor as one of my own characters, and in the same way Michael uses landscapes and houses, woods and trees in a way that puts the reader right there in the middle of it all.
But to this book.
AMNESIA is a brilliant piece of work. It begins with a young woman, Clemence, who is asked by her aunt to visit an old man who has had an accident and fallen downstairs. She finds a grumpy, confused elderly fellow who is mostly desperate to escape the hospital. But he can’t be released without someone to help him, because in the fall, he’s lost his memory.
The prognosis is not bad, the doctor assures Clemence, but it would be good if someone could sit with him and read to him, talk, make sure he’s eating, getting some exercise … all the normal things. Clemence is a strong-willed young woman, and besides, her aunt has always been good to her. So, yes, she takes on the job. She has a car, and drives him up the long, winding roads to the house, WYVIS, where he lives.
But the old man has some secrets, although whether or not he will admit them even to himself is another matter. Clemence finds a biro-written manuscript called DEATH AT WYVIS by the man she was looking after, Alastair Cunningham. On the first pages she reads:
“It was a warm, still night and the cry of a tawny owl swirled through the birch trees by the loch, when I killed the only woman I have ever loved.”
The woman, Clemence knows, was her own grandmother.
Thus begins this book within Michael’s book, and it is as riveting as only the best writers can make it. The story is quite like an F. Scott Fitzgerald in the types of character depicted: vapid, but beautiful, rich and idle, seen through the eyes of an English traveller. There is casual cruelty and astonishing generosity, but it all adds up to death.
Michael’s story is how the two people get to learn and understand the story that they read in DEATH AT WYVIS, and how this old story of a death many years before, can come and threaten them again even now.
This is a superb story. It is well-plotted, imaginative, with intensely believable characters all struggling in a morass of old jealousies and grudges. It is told by using the book within the book, which works stunningly well in Michael Ridpath’s hands. I’d love to know whether he wrote the inner story first, and then fitted the present day book around it, or whether the interior story developed while he was writing.
Either way, it is a fabulous story told by one of the best crime writers working today.
You need to ask? Of course it’s highly recommended!