Saturday 8 October 2016

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

I picked up Amsterdam unexpectedly just as I finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing thanks to spotting a readalong with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing, Care's Books & Pies and Althira @Reading on a Rainy Day.

I adored DNSWHN to pieces and strongly wish, hope and desire that it wins this years Booker Prize (my review is here). But judging by previous Booker winners and shortlists, there is absolutely no guarantee that my favourite will also impress the judges.

Not having read any of the other shortlisted books for 1998, I cannot say whether Amsterdam was deserving of it's win or not but to my mind, choosing satire and black humour is always going to be a tough call. (I didn't enjoy The Finkler Question either which was categorised as comic or farcical - one person's funny is another's 'meh'.

Amsterdam and DNSWHN have many points of connect. But the strengths in DNSWHN show up the faults in Amsterdam; whereas the strengths (there are a few) in Amsterdam only add to the significance and the pleasure I received in reading DNSWHN.

I believed that Amsterdam was an unread book on my TBR shelf. At the beginning I was convinced that I was on new territory, but when I reached pg 66 I suddenly came across an underlined phrase. I had been here before!

The phrase was
unknowingly bending and colouring the past through the prism of his unhappiness.
Exactly the kind of phrase I would underline, and which I would have done so again with this read!

Why was this book so unmemorable to me?

The date of purchase gave me my first clue. 2005.

(I write my name, date and place of purchase in all of my books.)

2005 was the year when Mr Books and I rekindled our old love. It was a year of high emotional ferment and change for me. I struggled to read or settle to anything constructive that year. Amsterdam didn't stand a chance.

In fact the only section of the book that struck a familiar chord during this reread was Clive's walk in the Lakes District. The rest was like reading a completely new-to-me story. (Interestingly, McEwan himself likes to hike through the Lakes District & it was during a walk along the very same route that Clive took in the book, that he had the inspiration for this story - The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction 173).

McEwan can write wonderfully precise, thrilling, moving sentences. The hiking scene in the Lakes District is one of those times.

Amsterdam feels like it could be a Shakespearean tragedy - a dead woman, four men, a pact, the absurd comic relief of middle-aged men behaving badly as the big issues of fate, morality and civility play out. All it needs is Venice!

(Ha! I just got that Amsterdam is another European city with canals! Maybe there is more going on here than I first thought?)

No-one comes out unscathed. All the characters reveal their dark sides - their private tussles with civic duty, personal responsibility and getting the job done. The wife who lies to protect her family, the police who collude to catch/frame a criminal, the husband who lures his wife's lovers to their doom. Even the lovely Molly, who we only ever see through her lovers eyes, was in reality, an adulteress who had affairs with married men.

But the ending is disappointing. Too neat, too contrived, too implausible.
The black humour did provide a wry smile or two but there were no trademark McEwan twists or shocks to carry us through or to drive his point home.

I was left with a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth and the conviction that McEwan despises everyone.

In the Paris Review interview linked above, McEwan mentioned that Amsterdam was one of those 'turning points' in his writing career and that
I could not have written Atonement without first writing Amsterdam.
For all it's curiosities and flaws, I will now always be grateful to Amsterdam for this fact alone.

Thank you to JoAnn, Althira & Care for having me along on their #damalong. It was #dam good fun!

My post on McEwan's previous books (that I have read) is here.


  1. Anonymous8/10/16

    The title: Amsterdam
    ...curious what that has to do with a story taking place in England?
    Canals, water....did you find out the connection?
    You don't have to explain the title : story...if it will give away too much of the plot.
    But was the Amsterdam (title) a significant part?

    1. The ending was in Amsterdam, Nancy, and the focus was the euthanasia laws of that time. It was significant because it allowed the ending to play out the way it did - implausible as it was!

      I think it was meant to represent 'free and easy' Europe where Brits could go to do the things they cannot do at home.

      McEwan also mentions the politicking and media around asylum seekers, refugees, immigration and the desire of some Brits to leave the EU. It felt very topical in that respect.

  2. Anonymous9/10/16

    Thanks for the info!

  3. I read this way back when it was new and remember very little about it, though I enjoyed it enough to stick with McEwan for a long time afterwards. But I must say that I recognise that unpleasant taste - he's left me with that more than once. For me, Atonement was undoubtedly his high point.

  4. Anonymous11/10/16

    Great review! I had read this book years ago, sometime after Atonement, and remembered enjoying it particularly for the way it was written. He really has a way with words, doesn't he? :)

  5. Great post, Brona! I finally finished at the beginning of the week, but promptly left on another road trip. Will be home tomorrow night and I'll put together a post next week. For now, I was disappointed in Amsterdam (though the writing was excellent, as always). It mostly made me think about rereading Atonement.


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