Every 179 days, a young man named Robbie forgets everything about his past due to a rare neurological condition. Thus the premise of the novel thrusts us into fantasy amnesia, a whole sub-genre of amnesia fiction in itself, and fine by me. When we meet Robbie, he knows his condition exists because one of his former selves has written a letter for him explaining his situation. What’s more, he has prepared himself a strategy; a set of strict instructions on how to live his life until the next forgetting. The herculean project he undertakes in his living room—setting up 83,790 dominoes into tower structures—takes all his concentration, energy and time. It is designed to keep him entirely on his own. Robbie has a maxim to help keep his sense of self intact: “Keep to yourself to keep yourself.”
At the novel opening, there are only twelve days left before Robbie’s next forgetting. His domino task is proceeding smoothly, until a pretty young woman named Julie turns up. She is the only woman Robbie can ever remember meeting, and with her appearance he experiences new emotions. Her intrusion into his highly controlled life becomes a threat to Robbie’s former self’s plan for isolation and autonomy.
So with Julie’s appearance, Robbie must find a way to negotiate his desire to stay on track with the domino project, as well as the new feelings, information and sense of possibilities that Julie brings.
The novel operates on one level as a contemporary YA read. Nevertheless, as it progresses one begins to suspect that behind the ‘amnesiac boy meets forgotten girl’ storyline, some serious philosophical questions are being raised.
Robbie’s strategy to keep away from others is ‘safe’, but limited; it turns Robbie into an all-work-no-play automaton. There is no room for human connection or fun, let alone love, to flourish. It is completely risk-averse. So we begin to wonder, what do we gain or lose when we open ourselves up to others? Do we risk losing our ‘authentic self’ when we let someone else into our lives and our hearts? Should one try to live like an island, and forfeit links to other individuals and community, which can compromise self-sufficiency and productivity? Or does connection to others humanise us?
Philosophical and ethical questions
The book explores one question that often comes up in amnesia stories: Do memories make us who we are? With that in mind, also, we are led to consider whether we are a consistent self throughout our lives, or a series of selves? The ethics of following through on promises, made to oneself, as well as to others, is also explored as discussed by Hugh Breakey himself in an interview that ran on ABC Radio National: The Minefield.
However, for seasoned readers of philosophical works, the style and format of this book may seem dumbed-down. This novel is an accessible, romance genre book, set in contemporary times, peppered with often mundane details from Robbie’s mechanistic daily life, so that stylistically it feels more akin to a best-selling romance than a work of a traditional moral philosopher, despite its author’s credentials.
The author and the philosophical
The novel’s author, Hugh Breakey, is one and the same Dr Hugh Breakey, Senior Research Fellow in moral philosophy at Griffith University’s Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law. 1
In the article, The splintering self: the philosophy behind “The Beautiful Fall”, Breakey discusses the philosophical aspect of his book:
The Beautiful Fall is not a philosophical novel in the sense, say, of Sartre’s Nausea. But its setup provides a springboard for exploring an array of intriguing philosophical questions. The foremost, of course, is the memory-identity question. Do memories make us who we are, and what would be left of our character if they were taken away, or if they were remade in some way? (This longstanding philosophical question is a staple of memory-stripping stories — think of films like Total Recall, The Bourne Identity, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) In the face of his looming loss of memory, Robbie must try every device he can think of to ensure his self will somehow push through the forgetting and continue into the future. 2
The question of genre
To think of The Beautiful Fall as a light YA romance, with a case of amnesia driving its plot, is to take the novel at face value and overlook the philosophical component. That said, the romantic story between young people does dominate. If you don’t like amnesiac-boy-meets-girl love stories, The Beautiful Fall is not for you. Me? I like a good amnesia story regardless of its packaging as high art or genre, mainstream or experimental. I enjoyed reading The Beautiful Fall, but at times I found its domino focus mundane, and it ruffled my feminist feathers.
While the book explores ideas about memory and the individual self as an island, Julie’s role is problematic for she operates as a contemporary siren, the sort that tries to lure Ulysses to the rocks. Her very feminine presence threatens to cause the death of Robbie’s working self. While Breakey may well be critical of these gender stereotypes, including Robbie’s over-focus on productivity, such gender stereotypes are, to an extent, perpetuated.
While attracting plenty of critical praise from Australian critics, see below, Elizabeth Bryer sees its realism and gender issues as problematic in a similar way to me.
...what we get is a teenager’s fantasy, delivered in a plodding realism (wake up, eat breakfast, work out), that turns into a middle-aged man’s anxiety dream, complete with the pitfalls of heteronormative marriage and the attendant suspicions of entrapment and manipulation. - Elizabeth Bryer. 3
She suggests it is a book about romantic hope for masculine men with poor interpersonal skills.
“I think there is some message in it about honesty being more important than smarts, especially if you are a woman; about there still being romantic hope for masculine men who boast zero interpersonal skills; and about the importance of being a Man of Principle.” ... “At one stage, Robbie says he wants to be ‘free from the haphazard interventions of past lives – past wives’..” - Elizabeth Bryer 4
At times The Beautiful Fall has more in common with 50 First Dates than Satre’s Nausea and like Bryer, I might have preferred it to read something more like a Satre novel. However, it is out on the market, and had it been written like a Satre work, in these days of marketing to the many, and the commodification of ideas, it might not have made it to bookshelves. Can we blame authors if they go for accessibility in the current climate?
Words of Praise
‘This is a wonderful book—moving, intelligent and entertaining. I read it in a sitting.’ - Graeme Simsion, bestselling author of the Rosie trilogy.
‘Hugh Breakey has imagined a seemingly impossible set of choices for the characters in this romantic and quietly philosophical novel. The importance of memory and our individual concept of the past are reoccurring themes, as is the beauty of finishing something that means the world to you.’ - Kate McIntosh. 5
‘A true romance, one written with heart and sensuality.’ - Cass Moriarty ‘Hugh Breakey’s The Beautiful Fall is one of the most deeply-considered romantic dramas I have read.’ - Booklovers Book Reviews.
‘One of the most thought-provoking meditations on love you’ll encounter in a long while.’ - 2SER Final Draft
‘A fascinating idea that Breakey turns into both a philosophical inquiry and a thrilling race against time.’ - Herald Sun
About the author
Hugh Breakey is an award-winning and published philosopher. He has previously worked as a kitchen hand, editor, airport construction worker, theatre director, ethics consultant, pinball repairer, disk jockey, tennis-court builder and university lecturer. Hugh lives in rural Australia with his two children and his wife, novelist and New York Times bestseller, Kylie Scott.
ABC Radio National: The Book Show (0:33:00)
ABC Radio National: The Bookshelf ( 0:40:00)
ABC Radio National: The Bookshelf: RN Book Club
ABC Radio National: The Minefield
ABC: Religion: The splintering self: The philosophy behind ‘The Beautiful Fall’
Booklover Book Reviews
Final Draft podcast
The Sydney Morning Herald
The Australian Book Review
For more see Text Publishing
- https://experts.griffith.edu.au/8299-hugh-breakey: Dr Hugh Breakey is a Senior Research Fellow in moral philosophy at Griffith University’s Institute for Ethics, Governance & Law.
- The splintering self: the philosophy behind “The Beautiful Fall” - Hugh Breakey Hugh Breakey, Posted Mon 5 Jul 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/the-splintering-self-philosophy-and-beautiful-fall/13432360
- Elizabeth Bryer reviews 'The Beautiful Fall' by Hugh Breakey, 'The Other Side of Beautiful' by Kim Lock, and 'The Rabbits' by Sophie Overett September 2021, no. 435 • 19 August 2021, Australian Book Review. She is the author of From Here On, Monsters
- Readings, The Beautiful Fall by Hugh Breakey Reviewed by Kate McIntosh 2021. Kate McIntosh is the manager of Readings Doncaster. https://www.readings.com.au/review/the-beautiful-fall-by-hugh-breakey#