Amsterdam – Ian McEwan: A Review

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Date finished: September 17th 2015

My third foray into the world of Ian McEwan (the first being The Cement Garden and the second The Comfort of Strangers) finds me bending the spine of a second-hand copy of the 1998 Booker Prizewinner Amsterdam.

The story follows two men, composer Clive, and newspaper editor, Vernon, both former lovers of recently-deceased Molly. At the end of her life, Molly was married to the controlling George whilst conducting an affair with foreign secretary Julian Garmony. George comes across photos taken by Molly of Garmony cross-dressing and brings them to Vernon’s ailing paper for him to break the scandal, but Clive argues it would be tantamount to betraying Molly. What follows stretches the friendship of Clive and Vernon to breaking point as each struggles with their personal lives, their grief for Molly, and the turmoil of each having the power to ruin both another man and themselves.

From the outset it’s clear that McEwan’s incisive prose hasn’t lost any of its power to pierce to the very core of its reader, if anything he’s perfected this talent further. Something indefinable about the way he writes gets under the skin. His power to bring images to life are palpable, and one can hear the music in the sections where he describes Clive’s composition.

Unfortunately, this innate ability comes at the expense of plot. Amsterdam is a highly absorbing exploration of the dark psychology of its characters, but with time it all unravels. The final act sees four-fifths of the story wasted on a farcical plot-twist that only a maniac would believe could possibly work in the confines of this tale. It feels like a cheap resolution to what had been, thus far, something actually worthy of the Booker Prize.

McEwan has an unrivaled way with words, but without a believable plot his novels are doomed to become monuments to wasted potential. His natural talent is marred by what I can only imagine is a tendency to overthink and worry about the plot, ultimately ruining it. If he just let what he had tapped flow out naturally, he would produce the McEwan masterpiece that I know to exist within him, but somehow he always finds a way to disappoint.

5/10

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