Amsterdam (1998) – Ian McEWAN

I read this weeks ago! This is, I think, the first time I’ve reviewed a book so long after the fact. I blame the fact that uni has stared again (only to end this week – yay!), and so I haven’t had time to scratch myself. So if this review seems a little off, I apologise in advance.

When Molly Lane dies, her friends come to pay their respects. In particular, two old friends meet again – Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is a famous composer, having been commissioned to write the symphony for the next millennium. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper struggling to survive. As these two lives begin to once again intertwine, a pact they make will have disastrous consequences.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ian McEwan – clearly, I’ve never reviewed him here. But I do like him a lot. There seems to the this stigma surrounding his work because he manages to straddle that line between populism and literature so very well – I would totally class his stuff as literature, but it has a somewhat broader appeal than most. There seems to be some ‘conventional wisdom’ that Amsterdam shouldn’t have won the Booker, but he got it because he was short-changed with Enduring Love. I don’t know about that, though. This is pretty good.

What I like most about McEwan’s work is the fact that it is just so very English. Well, a very specific type of English, to be fair – the middle-aged, upper-middle-class white man. But he just does it so well. These two men – Clive and Vernon – are so caught up in their own problems, they cannot see anything else. And when they realise that a woman they both dated has died, they also realise just how short their lives are. And so, the wheels begin to turn. Their legacy becomes of vital importance – who will remember these two men after they have died? What should they do to ensure their names live on?

The lengths they go to in order to ensure this become so great, you cannot quite believe that they are actually happening. Clive is willing to let a woman be attacked and raped just to ensure his muse isn’t interrupted, while Vernon is happy to destroy another man’s career – and probably family – to ensure he is remembered. And yet, this backfires so spectacularly on both of them. Both of them become so self-destructive, the ending seems almost like high farce.

Indeed, this is a very funny novel. McEwan keeps it light – and short – but I do think it works to the novel’s advantage. There is something very darkly funny about watching these two self-important, insignificant men run around trying desperately to make themselves relevant. And (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you), the ending is absolutely perfect. There is no other way this book could have ended, and McEwan times it perfectly. There could have been a tendency to drag had he let their machinations play our terribly much longer, but the final scenes are so perfectly written and timed, I had to laugh. It’s pretty epic.

Amsterdam is an intelligent novel – and I think people tend to forget that sometimes. Partially because it’s surrounded by Enduring Love and Atonement in McEwan’s oeuvre, and the fact that it’s McEwan at all. There’s quite a lot at work here, and if you like your characters white, middle-aged, middle-class, with just a hint of insanity, then this just might be for you.

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8 thoughts on “Amsterdam (1998) – Ian McEWAN

  1. Ronak M Soni says:

    Weird. When I read the book, I thought it was supposed to be a tragedy, and I’d already guessed the end (though not what happens to Clive’s piece), but had lost any sympathy for either, simply because they could do what they did. So it’s a surprise hearing of it as light. Maybe I have to reread it.

    • matttodd says:

      I could be the only one who thinks it’s funny… But I hope I’m not, because I do think it is inherently funny – if not just for the stupidity of the main two leads. Certainly, it’s tragic as well, but in a funny way. If that makes sense.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I enjoyed it, too, Matt. And I love that exchange between the editor and his journalists, brainstorming ideas for a lightweight column!

  3. whisperinggums says:

    Must admit it’s not the McEwan I remember well – Enduring love has one of the best novel beginnings ever I think, and Atonement is a fantastic work. I also really enjoyed Saturday and On Chesil Beach BUT Amsterdam? Well, of all the McEwan’s I’ve read it’d the only one I really can’t remember, even though I read it the same month I read Enduring love. Why is that? I do think I should read it again.

    • matttodd says:

      See?! Yes – definitely go and re-read. It’s probably not the greatest book of all time, but it’s a nice diversion for a few hours. And it does make you think.

      • whisperinggums says:

        I will … well, I will try anyhow cos I’d love to recheck my initial impressioin.

  4. Julia says:

    Amsterdam is my favourite Ian McEwan book, although I can never quite explain why. It’s just so…clever and funny, definitely funny, but also very dark. And its insights into accomplished men, and ‘artists’ in particular are so sharp, and the descriptions of Molly’s decline on the first page are touchingly tragic; the way she slowly looses language – wow. You make me want to re-read it right now, but I do have Wonders of a Godless world to get started on…

  5. […] take on contemporary society. As with some of his other recent novels, including Saturday and Amsterdam, this is helped by having a middle-aged male character as our protagonist, one who seems to be […]

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