Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan published by Vintage

If I was forced, at pain of being thwacked over the head with a hardback copy of War and Peace, to name my favourite contemporary author, I would say Ian McEwan.

I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, when I picked up a copy of The Cement Garden, attracted by a tale of messed-up and cooped-up adolescents whose lives were ALMOST as depressing as mine. What I was probably hoping for was a British Flowers In The Attic, what I got was far better; darker and more disturbing, less sensational, more emotional, but stripped of any sugary sentimentality.

As I came to discover, McEwan’s powers lie in crisp, sharp prose, with not a mis-placed word. Like all great authors he can say more in a sentence than lesser writers can in a chapter. He never gets into a tangle of adjectives or sounds like he’s hurling long words at the reader in attempt to upstage you.

From The Cement Garden, I entered the even murkier, more sinister worlds of McEwan’s first two published works, both collections of short stories – First Love, Last Rites and In Between The Sheets. These were strange worlds, where women had relationships with orang-u-tans and fathers and daughters fought for survival in post-apocalyptic nightmare where lone tower blocks survived like cement cockroaches. McEwan’s late ’70s world made J.G. Ballard‘s look like an Ikea ad.

Over time McEwan’s literary landscapes slowly shifted from shadowy suburbia and grubby bedsit land to the professional urban middle class and love across the class divide in upper crust country piles. But while his protagonists moved up the class ladder and his settings became more aesthetically pleasing, there was still a dark heart at their core, pumping poison through Sunday supplement lives.

But my love affair with McEwan’s novels hit a speed bump with his 1998 novel Amsterdam. I laboured over it for weeks and over the years, as the memory of it became fuzzy, I came to hate it even more. I would tell people to read him, but beg them to skip his Booker prize winning novel. Was it reverse snobbery? Perhaps, I was studying for an English degree at the time and, like a typically smug undergrad, loved dismissing huge swathes of critically acclaimed works, much like McEwan’s hero in Sweet Tooth.

As the years passed the book became a blur of expensive red wine, white carpets and two middle aged men jabbing accusatory fingers at each other. Beyond that, I couldn’t remember much, the plot was lost to me completely, and as I continued to read and enjoy McEwan’s books (except Saturday, which I also dislike and which I should also revisit) I wondered what it was I so despised about Amsterdam.

So I went back and read it. And gobbled it up in one weekend. Because, of course, it’s great. Sure, there’s a rambling pile in north London with a wine cellar stuffed with expensive Beaujolais, but it’s a house whose heart’s been ripped out of it, where the composer, Clive Linley lives with his fading past, shuffling between unloved rooms amidst a pile of discarded scores and dirty wine glasses. Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Clive’s best friend, reached his professional apex through sheer luck and his ability to slip through life unnoticed. They are not men to envy, and they are certainly not mocking you with their (un)fabulous lives.

The novel opens with a funeral, Clive and Vernon standing in the rain, remembering the coffin’s occupant, their former lover Molly Lane. Molly isn’t the only thing they have in common: Clive and Vernon are also united by a hatred for her most recent lover Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary, a man who Molly’s husband, George, would also like to see destroyed. This rain-soaked meeting sparks a chain of events that set off a deadly cocktail of grief, fear, hatred, passion and jealousy.

In other author’s hands, Amsterdam would have been an hysterical thriller, racing along at speed and hitting the odd plot-hole along the way. But McEwan writes with a precision that hides the true horror until it confronts you with its steely honesty. Seemingly inconsequential, microscopic moments that writers have a tendency to smother in heavy-handed SYMBOLISM, those spots in time that turn the whole story on its head, are told with less fuss than the description of the wine Clive chooses for dinner. These are the moments that drive the story to towards its fatal end, but it’s not until later that we – like the characters – come to understand the consequences.

I’m currently finding my way through Barbara Kingsolver‘s overblown Flight Behaviour and missing McEwan’s sharp prose. When I’ve crawled my way to the end, I’ll need to dig out my copy of Saturday and see if the neurosurgeon and his marble staircase can win me over this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

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