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[414] Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

” Just supposing I did get ill in a major way, like Molly, and I started to go downhill and make terrible mistakes—you know, errors of judgment, not knowing the names of things or who I was, that kind of thing. I’d like to know there was someone who’d help me finish it . . . I mean, help me to die. Especially if I got to the point where I couldn’t make the decision for myself, or act on it. ” (II, 53)

On a chilly February day, two old friends meet in the throng outside of a London crematorium to pay their final respects to Molly Lane, whom they had dated before they achieve their current eminence. Clive Linley is Britain’s most successful modern composer who has been commissioned to write the millennial symphony. Vernon Halliday is the editor of the newspaper The Judge. Also in Molly’s love history is Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next Prime Minister. Vernon somehow obtains pictures, copyrighted by Molly, of Garmony in drag—perfect evidence to stir up a scandal that will strike him down in order to protect the country from his harsh policies.

… it occurred to the many newspaper editors who had bid for Molly’s photographs that the trouble with Vernon’s paper was that it was out of step with changing times . . . Now we live in a more reasonable, compassionate, and tolerant age in which the private and harmless preferences of individuals, however public they may be, remain their own business. Where there is no discernible issue of public interest, the old-fashioned arts of the blackmailer and self-righteous whistle-blower have no place, and while this paper does not wish to impugn the moral sensitivities of the common flea . . . (IV, 136)

In the days that follow Molly’s funeral, the bleak circumstances of her death—the decline of memory, the loss of speech and eventually control of bodily function, unnerves the two friends, invoke such mortifying thoughts of their own mortality. What happened to Molly causes them to make a pact that in the event of symptoms that suddenly leave him helpless, the other will secure the means for a peaceful euthanasia. As Clive struggles to finish the symphony before the deadline, Vernon becomes embroiled in political scandal that costs his job. While both strive to steer clear of their impending crisis, each perpetrates a disastrous moral foul that puts their friendship to test.

… because he’d never made anything good in his life and was eaten up with hatred for those who could. His poky suburban squeamishness was what passed for a moral stand, and meanwhile he was up to the elbows in shit, in fact he had verily pitched his tent on excrement, and to advance his squalid interests he was happy to debase Molly’s memory and ruin a vulnerable fool like Garmony and call up the hate codes of the yellow press . . . (V, 148)

Dark and comic, Amsterdam packs together love, revenge, political intrigue, and media frenzy to shines on the contemporary moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy. As befit McEwan’s usual wordsmith style, each sentence is evident of his meticulous word choices. The book is plot-driven, with witty repartee and scathing retort, setting multiple storylines in motion and spinning to an end with sudden ferocity. Amsterdam is chilling and cleverly wicked because, predicatbly, both men’s agreement becomes murderous and the aftermath of Molly’s death serves to destroy an enduring friendship. One friend’s compromise to secure a higher good is at fault with another’s ethics. But both men are morally ambiguous and vague, leading us to question them rather than to condemn them. The book is one continuous arc that holds my attention from beginning to end. It totally deserves the Booker Prize, which many critics said was a consolation prize since Comfort with Strangers and The Cement Garden didn’t win.

193 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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6 Responses

  1. I’ve had this one on my list to read for some time now. I like a book that presents an ambiguous situation for the reader to ponder as they are reading it.

  2. I absolutely adored Amsterdam! I thought the final denouement was so simple, yet so effective!

  3. I’m excited to see your post on this one, Matt. I bought it at a book sale recently because I’ve loved On Chesil Beach and Atonement. I’m even more excited to read Amsterdam after your review.

  4. I haven’t read any of this author’s books….something I need to correct!

  5. One of the few of his books I haven’t read. Reviews were not good so . . . But now I’ll check it out. I’ve never read Comfort of Strangers because the movie was one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen.

  6. I have to disagree with you on this one, Matt! I read this a few years ago and really did not enjoy it at all. I found the writing really plodding and uninspiring, and I found the ending of the story really predictable and obvious. To me, this novel just didn’t have any subtlety.

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