Ian McEwan is, without a doubt, one of the greatest writers of dark fiction today. But his novella "Amsterdam" is something of a misfire, reading more like the sluggishly-filled-out outline for a novel rather than a novel itself. While it has the seeds of genius, his usual introspection and depth is both missing and sorely missed.
Molly Lane is dead, her mind and body wrecked by an unspecified disease. Now her assorted lovers and friends reunite one last time, including Molly's ex-boyfriends Clive and Vernon, respectively a prominent composer and a not-so-respected newspaper editor. Because of Molly, they are friends -- and they enter into a pact because of her death.
But things go awry when Vernon gets his hands on photos of the Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, cross-dressing and photographed by Molly. Eager to bring down Garmony and bring up his readership, Vernon wants to publish the photos in his newspaper; Clive is disgusted by this, yet he allows a rapist and murderer to go free for the sake of his musical inspiration. Which man is worse?
"Amsterdam" is like a city in winter: pretty at a distance but rather empty and cold when you walk through it. In theory it has all the elements needed for a great novel, but it feels vaguely unfinished, as if McEwan was expanding an outline into a full-fledged novel but somehow never finished the job.
The characters are lacking in the complexity found in most of McEwan's other books, where many dimensions can be found. Clive is almost impossible to connect with; Vernon is more understandable, given his waning career. But if these characters aren't really connectable, McEwan uses them to make us look at morality, hypocrisy, and where our bad intentions can lead us.
Aside from the characters, the prose is simple and straightforward: it describes what the characters do, but very little of what they think. As a result, some of the actions -- such as Clive watching a woman being attacked -- seem almost random. But in places, such as Mrs. Garmony's public speech about her husband and Vernon, his brilliance shines forth, and the entire ending is lit up by the irony.
So while an acceptable novel by most standards, it's perhaps the least of McEwan's works thus far. Has its moments of pure brilliance, but in large patches, it's dreary and empty.
on 20 August 2015
Lovely story although odd ending. But the best thing about this book is the writing. You can almost ignore the story as this is what beautiful writing looks like. It's just a pleasure to read, and is classical music for the eyes.
When Molly Lane dies, two of her friends meet outside a crematorium to express both their remorse and their view of Molly's last days. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are a pair of extremely successful men who at one point or another had an affair with Molly. Molly died in what they consider a horrible way; she just started to lose it suddenly, became ill, and required her long-suffering husband to nurse her. Clive, the most famous composer of his age, and Vernon, editor of a top newspaper, make a pact after Molly's death that rebounds against them in a way they'd never expected.
On the back cover, this is described as "a sharp contemporary morality tale, cleverly disguised as a comic novel", and I can't say it better than that. The comedy to me appears to come from how ridiculous these men are, how they are so wrapped up in themselves that they can't hear and don't care about the outside world at all. By the end of the novel, they have each truly become like Molly, lost to the world without realizing what has happened to them. They've been overtaken by an illness, and that illness is, according to Ian McEwan, the ills of public society and the selfishness that it takes to ignore the needs and wellbeing of fellow humans while taking care of number one. The disturbing thing is that neither of them realize it; what they're doing is so normal to them that they don't understand what's wrong. They think they're adding to society when really they're just adding to the problem.
Anyway, in that way, this novel is so deep in so few pages that it's hard to say whether or not I liked it. This is one of those books that I want a class on. There's a lot here to pick at and just writing that paragraph above has helped me clarify it in my mind. I think I could write a paper on it. It's less than two hundred pages long, so it didn't take me very long to read, but it packs in so much thought-provoking material in with the ridiculousness of the situation. The worst part is that, when dissected, the behavior of neither of the characters is ridiculous. They're doing what has been done countless times before and that is eerie and worrying, especially given the extreme dislike I felt for both of them by the end of the novel. Really the problem with the novel is that it isn't a very good story. The story and the characters exist only to prove McEwan's point, which is a strong one, but it doesn't work very well at a surface level.
In conclusion, there is a very good reason that Amsterdam won the Booker Prize. It's a truly haunting commentary on society that still manages to be slightly ridiculous enough to make it interesting. I haven't even touched on all the issues here, but I can tell I'm going to continue thinking about this for some time to come. It isn't as good as a book as Atonement is, in my humble opinion, particularly because it is shallow in everything but its overall meaning. I still think it's worth a read.
on 25 February 2004
Can this be the man who wrote Enduring Love, Atonement, The Child In Time, or even The Innocent? (not one of his best) surely not!! perhaps he went on holiday and left it to a GCSE student to write it. The characters are completely unbelievable, the plot is just complete nonsense, and the ending so predictable that I nearly didn't bother to finish it. Never can there have been a greater case of somone being presented with a Booker on their passed merits rather than the prize book itself. I wouldn't have given it 1 star, even the cover was off putting. Don't waste you time reading it, even if you are a McEwan fan as I was, it will put you off him forever!
on 9 June 2005
This book was dull and thoroughly un-memorable! A simple story that isn't particularly interesting nor intriguing, nor really leading anywhere in particular. Take the name Ian McEwan off the front and I personally don't think it would have got published.
on 19 February 2014
I was a huge fan of Enduring Love and with Amsterdam being one of McEwan's most highly rated works, I was expecting more. It reached a satisfactory conclusion, but I didn't enjoy the journey there as much as I thought I would.
on 26 March 2000
This is a cold, contrived little book, that seems intentionally to keep the reader distanced from the characters. And who are these characters? - where did Ian McEwan meet them? They barely seem to exist in the same world as the rest of us. He is writing about universal emotions - jealousy, hubris, fear of senility - yet has tacked these emotions onto a bunch of cyphers, and enclosed them in a plot of childish predictability. Style has triumphed utterly over content.
on 23 January 2009
My Gran simply cannot understand why I like Ian McEwan novels and I simply do not understand why she cannot like them. Despite the fact that it had it written in massive letters on the front it wasn't until I was half way in that I saw that `Amsterdam' had won the Man Booker Prize in 1998. I don't know what the longlist was that year, I will look it up, yet I think its win is deserved.
This book is one of McEwan's books that show exactly why I think he is a great writer and why I love his novels. The start of the novel centres around the funeral of Molly Lane (brilliant character name) who `could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six' which I think is a brilliant way of summing up someone we never actually meet in a novel but who's death and affairs it centres around.
At the funeral are at least three of her ex-lovers whom she would still entertain whilst she was married to her husband George. Clive Linley is successful composer though slightly conservative who is looking to write his masterpiece. Vernon Halliday is the latest editor of The Judge a long ruining but sadly failing newspaper which needs a change in style. Julian Garmony is the foreign secretary who could become the next Prime Minister and possibly ruin the country forever. However though her relationship is what ties them together initially it is the actions that follow her funeral that change their lives forever.
Like `The Innocent' which I read earlier this year McEwan leads you down the garden path thinking that the story is about one thing when it is in fact about many. I have seen reviews where this is said to be a dull uninspiring book yet I was strangely gripped. I wonder if these people love `The Catcher in the Rye' and `Heart of Darkness'? After Molly dies photo's are found she took of Garmony cross-dressing. George gives them to Vernon and tells him to publish them, but should he, is he that desperate to shame Garmony and make The Judge successful again? When Linley goes away to the Lake District for inspiration and to get away does he see something that could have changed people's lives forever and will he love with the guilt, and why do the ex-lovers feel the need to carry on competing?
I thought this was a fantastic book possibly one of my McEwan favourites and there have been quite a few. If you want understated plots that have sudden shocks with characters that you would hate to meet but secretly would love to be for one day and fantastic prose then I can't see why you wouldn't love Ian McEwan and Amsterdam.
on 18 June 2015
As elegantly written as his other works but I found the end a little difficult to believe in. The plot or story is of course only part of what makes McEwan such a fantastic, enjoyable author and even allowing for my reservations, which I doubt are shared with others, he is stil miles ahead of most other contemporary novelists in the English language.
on 19 May 2015
I received this book free for review from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review. Despite the coolness of receiving a free book, I’m absolutely candid about it below because I believe authors and readers will benefit most from honest reviews rather than vacuous 5-star reviews.
The nutshell view on this book is that it is essentially the story of a friendship torn asunder. The narrative is fairly complex and the writing exceptionally literary but it does take a really long time to get to its ‘hook.’ Even when it does so, the hook isn’t terribly strong and takes a fair amount of willpower to carry forward with.
So on the positive side, the book is exceptionally erudite and paints a fine and detailed picture of its protagonists. They are very real and vividly portrayed and one could imagine knowing them in real life. Their intercourse is fairly realistic and they carry on like old friends tend to.
To the negative, the book takes a long time to get find its way to something interesting. The first full third of this short novel sets the stage and I found my mind wandering terribly and I wondered what exactly why I was bothering. Once I found the hook the a-ha moment was brief and only mildly impactful.
In summary, I can’t really find any group of readers to whom I would recommend this book. It wallows in the shallows of mediocrity and is not one that will come to mind unbidden over the coming months. In fact, utterly forgettable I’m afraid.
PS: I hope my review was helpful. If it was not, then please let me know what I left out that you’d want to know. I always aim to improve.