Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

There are writers whose stories you forget after you put the book down. Or let's say you enjoy a novel and consider it one of the best reads of the year and yet a few months after that you can barely recall the intricacies of plot or the manner of writing, only the feeling that at the time you turn in the page you were smiling like crazy. Then there are writers whose stories haunt you after turning the last few pages of the book. And not just that, the story nestles in your brain and much as you want to expunge it (oh gee, such a strong word) you can't. You feel like you lived in the story. You know the characters or rather you thought you know the characters and yet the author expertly tricks you to his chosen reality.

I've read Amsterdam at least a couple of weeks ago. I still can't get over it. Let's see why.

There are three ex-lovers of the now-deceased but very much married Molly Lane attending her funeral. One, Julian Garmony, is a politician with high hopes of becoming a Prime Minister in the near future. The other two are friends Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is a musician, a composer selected to present his latest masterpiece in a program at the turn of the century. Vernon is the editor of a newsmagazine with a steadily declining readership. All three shared a past with Molly at different times in her short life but she married a rich publisher named George Lane.

After the funeral George contacted Vernon and showed compromising photos of Julian Garmony taken by Molly. Considering Julian's promising political career and the fact that his politics isn't well-liked, Vernon pursued to have the photos published, something that Clive didn't like as he takes it as an affront to the memory of Molly. The rest of the story details the events of Vernon's pursuit, of Clive's struggle to compose music, of Julian's composure in public on the imminent publication of the photos and eventually, of an ending that in part was expected by me and yet the real ending (so to speak) particularly the last paragraph or so was a complete and total surprise it pulled the rug off my feet. Because in that last few sentences of the book you think you know what the story is all about and yet, alas, you're completely off the mark. And once you accept it as that you realized that you've been taken for a ride and you very well understand the reasons why. Irony is a good weapon of choice indeed.

On another layer it is a story of friendship. Molly Lane died of a debilitating disease with such swiftness that the two old friends thinking of a future filled with the pain and suffering similar to Molly's promised each other that they'd help each other end it all if and when necessary. It's the kind of friendship forged in years of companionship, a friendship that never doubts until now, when Molly is dead is everything is not as it should be.

To me it's another delicate handling of a story that could've gone completely wrong in another writer's hands. And McEwan is a masterful storyteller capable of fine-tuning the characters until the feel so real to the point you wish you could wring their necks or scream at them, somewhat.

While the politics can be treated simply as such and the portrayal of news hounds as is, I loved the way McEwan managed to make composing music read like you're listening to it. Well, maybe that's just me. I'm tone deaf and I couldn't sing to save my life (gee, I've been using that phrase a lot lately) but I love listening to music. I love separating different instruments in my mind. I love shielding other sounds and retaining just the melody one time, just the guitars another. Again, it's just me. And McEwan captures composing music in a manner that is understandable to someone like me.

I've read four McEwan stories so far, all four different and yet all managing to disturb me one way or another. Disturb in a good sense, that is. I'm sure to read his other novels and he's elevated now to the ranks of writers I'd follow to death. Or something to that effect.

Not very many people share my adoration of McEwan or this book but to me it's always a case of hmmm, what works for me uh, works for me. Right?

Amsterdam won the Man Booker Prize of 1998.


    On December 16, 2008 at 11:52 AM Anonymous said...

    what works for u ... works for u ... darn right :)

    Really good review there :)
    I am going to try my First Ian book - "Atonement" and then we will know if I pick up any more :)

    Thanks :) I will surely look out for this one :)

    Thank you Veens! I hope you enjoy reading McEwan. I loved Atonement too! I read that for the first Book Awards Reading Challenge.

    I thought the climax was too contrived and easy- even predictable?
    The book was a good read however coz it seemed to highlight the political nature of man. The context is a society that pressurizes its elements to take brutal and selfish decisions for self perpetuation.
    I have put in my own two pence on the book here: