The Amnesia Clinic
by James Scudamore

Reviewed by Francesca Gentile

“Sometimes great storytellers die before their time.  It’s only right that great stories should be told about them in return. I will do my best.”  With these opening words of reflection on his childhood, Anti, James Scudamore’s now-grown narrator, says everything that needs to be said about The Amnesia Clinic. It is a book about stories and the people who tell them, and it is a book that tells its own story, playing with and pushing every nuance of the story-crafting process along the way.

Set in Ecuador, the novel begins with a second-hand account of two explorers stumbling upon the frozen, mummified body of an Incan princess on a volcano in nearby Peru. Immediately, the book sets a high standard for excitement and adventure that, at times, leaves the reader wondering if Indiana Jones is going to swing by on a jungle vine. This initial account, however, whets not only the reader’s appetite for excitement, but also the appetites of Anti and his best friend Fabián. The emphasis on this story as the spark for the events that follow reveals from the very beginning the multi-layered role that stories and narratives play throughout the novel. Hearing the story, both boys hope to experience such an adventure and to discover something for themselves, a desire that is fulfilled over the course of their own story.

Almost as important as the anticipation of adventure at the beginning of the novel is the unlikely friendship between the two boys. Anti is reserved, English, and asthmatic with two overprotective parents; Fabián is obnoxiously outspoken and crass, has mysteriously absent parents, and lives with his eccentric wealthy uncle and a bodyguard in a mountaintop mansion.

While Fabián’s circumstances are too convenient in the way they enable what would otherwise be incongruities within the plot, namely the boys’ having the means to travel around the country, and are expected in the sense that every orphan is sent to live with an eccentric relative, they do introduce the novel’s most interesting character: Fabián’s uncle Suarez. Throughout the book, Suarez remains an elusive figure for both Anti and the reader. Although he plays a major role in the lives of the two boys and at the end of the novel, he is impossible to understand or explain and maintains a certain luster and degree of mystery that the other characters lose all too quickly.

Early in the novel, Anti and Fabián do what I assume normal fifteen year-old boys do: they brag about girls, they play games, and, with Suarez as facilitator, they break the rules. This, however, intensifies when Fabián claims to have seen his mother at a parade in Quito. He tells Anti an elaborate story about his father’s being killed in a bullfight. He says that his mother crashed their car trying to drive his dying father to the hospital, but that her body was never found. Not knowing any better, Anti plays along and concocts a story of his own about an amnesia clinic in a remote location where people are taken who lose their memories following accidents such Fabián’s mother’s. While Anti assures the reader that he and Fabián have a history of inventing stories and always know when the other is joking, Fabián takes Anti’s story literally, and the two boys set off in search of the clinic and Fabián’s mother.

At this point, the story leaves the realm of the semi-believable and travels with Anti and Fabián into the world of “every teenage boy’s fantasy.” On their own, Anti and Fabián travel across Ecuador, drinking, smoking, and bragging about brothels and prostitutes along the way. Eventually, they end up on a beach in the surfer-village of Pedrascada, where they stay with an American hippie named Ray and where Anti’s relationship with a much-older marine biologist drives a wedge between the two friends. As earlier parts of the novel were reminiscent of a less-innocent, hyperdrive version of Stand by Me, the dynamic relationship between Anti and Fabián remained to this point the characters’ redeeming factor. Yes, they were disgusting, silly teenage boys, but they were great friends who could depend upon one another. The novel, however, belittles and disregards this friendship by the end, and I, consequently, found it difficult to relate to either boy.

While storytelling is an important theme within the novel, the move to emphasize this theme at the end could have been more subtle. What we get are three versions, all from Anti’s perspective, of what happened on the trip, each one relying on varying levels of truth and exaggeration. At this point, I was unsure of what Anti is trying to prove. Hasn’t he already seen how dangerous his stories could be? Similarly, while there are some very vivid descriptions of Ecuador and some wonderfully insightful moments of dialogue throughout, the writing is too intense at times and comes across as trying to project danger and adventure onto every little thing. For example, Anti describes how “pale vomit leapt out of [Fabián] like a jaguar” (78). Whether this is meant to be a reflection of Anti’s desire to tell stories as exciting as the ones Fabián told or if it reflects Scudamore’s own impulse to overwrite, however, I am not sure – though I’m tempted to chalk it up to the latter.

Ultimately, Scudamore’s novel has an interesting take on the power of storytelling, which reveals itself in a story that is, if nothing else, entertaining and escapist. Where the story disappoints, however, are the points at which it fails to live up to its potential. Though Anti and Fabián have so much promise at the beginning of the novel, they ultimately lack dimension and I was left at the end of the novel wondering what I really knew about either of them. So, yes. Read this book for the story, and read for the vivid portraits it paints of Ecuador’s cities and countryside.  But don’t read to learn a lesson, and don’t read to connect to the characters, unless you are a fifteen year-old boy.

James Scudamore
The Amnesia Clinic
(New York: Harcourt, 2006). 
ISBN: 0-15-101265-2.  $23.00.  293 pp.

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