Amsterdam by Ian McEwan [A Review]

Ian McEwen’s Amsterdam won the 1998 Booker Prize. A study of heartlessness and hypocrisy in the face of contemporary moral dilemmas, it is a short, sharp, well-crafted novel.

Amsterdam

I am not sure what to say about Amsterdam.

At 178 pages, it is short. Could really be called a novella. It is also something of a thriller, which, combined with its brevity means there is little of the plot that can be leant for discussion in review.

Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are old friends and high-ranking public professionals who have just encountered each other again when attending the funeral of a mutual former lover, Molly Lane. Molly’s mental disintegration and death came on suddenly. So much so that she suffered terribly and did not have time to get her affairs in order or make it known what her wishes were for such circumstances. Clive and Vernon agree that they would not want their lives to end like that.

From this day, Clive and Vernon make a pact that binds them together but, soon after, they also each make a disastrous moral decision that threatens to destroy their careers and their legacy.

Amsterdam won the 1998 Booker Prize. This was before longlisted nominees, if there were any, were made known to the public. So our only comparison to judge Amsterdam is with five other shortlisted books, all of which seem to have faded from reader’s thoughts fairly quickly, none of which have I read nor do I feel particularly inclined to experience judging from their blurbs. Looking across years, Amsterdam would not rank among my favourite Booker winners. It will sit with others I found to be just ok – The Sense of an Ending, The Remains of the Day and Disgrace – three other short, spare, novels that disclose their themes somewhat subtly.

Like The Sense of an Ending, I feel that what impresses most about Amsterdam is its craft rather than its art. It is what McEwen achieves in creating mood, characterisation and tension, with a real economy of words, that is impressive here, rather than a work of poetic beauty. In fact, I couldn’t really find a passage I wanted to quote and share.

Reading other reviews, I get the impression that those who enjoyed this novel the most considered it to be very intelligent and sharply satirical. While this did briefly make me wonder if I didn’t get all of it, on reflection, I think they are exaggerating somewhat. It is clever, subtle and deliberate and makes some astute points about political integrity, privacy, friendship, subjective interpretations of past relationships and moral hypocrisy; but I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise its cleverness. I didn’t find it to be as spell-weavingly clever as Midnight’s Children, The Blind Assassin or We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I think a lot of readers did not like this novel. I suspect this is due to two aspects – the characters and the ending. The main characters in Amsterdam, Clive and Vernon, as well as a few others, are not nice people; they are selfish, angry, vengeful and petulant. This is not a novel with characters that readers would be willing to admit they relate to, can understand or can either rejoice or despair or at their fate. Personally, I’m not fazed by this, I don’t necessarily require novels to have relatable or likeable characters.

As for the ending, well, ending a thriller can be tricky. Readers probably wish for an ending that is unexpected but not too implausible, inconsistent or unsatisfying. While it is tempting to say McEwen did not quite deliver on this aspect, an alternative interpretation could be to say that this was the point. That, given the characters involved, satisfaction at the story’s conclusion is not the aim and the lack of it may instead be cause for reflection.

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