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AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Poor Molly. It began with a tingling in her arm as she raised it outside the Dorchester Grill to stop a cab; a sensation that never went away. Within weeks she was fumbling for the names of things. Parliament, chemistry, propeller she could forgive herself, but less so bed, cream, mirror… Molly, restaurant critic, gorgeous wit and photographer, the daring gardener who had been loved by the Foreign Secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six.”

This is the quiet yet disturbing tale of the unforgettable Molly, her sudden death and the memory she left behind in three former lovers who meet at her funeral. The story opens on a chilly February morning, as Vernon Halliday (broadsheet editor) and Clive Linley (British composer) arrive to pay their respects. Being close friends, they knew Molly before she became a famous restaurant critic. As her ex-lovers, they also share another mutual feeling; an intense dislike for Julian Garmony, the Foreign Secretary who once had a relationship with her and George, her morose and possessive husband. Her loss causes shock in the publishing world where she was known as the life of the party, but that isn’t the only shock her death gives way to. In the following days, Vernon and Clive are besieged by a strange numbness in the arm, a pact is made and the emergence of a series of grainy photographs threatens to undo them all.

The problem I had with this book is that I can’t call it a thriller, nor a love story in the conventional sense. It sits somewhere between the two and looks at the aftermath of relationships and those ‘residual’ emotions from a rather oblique position. Molly is already dead when the story beings and the reader is left to glean information about her through flashbacks often coloured by the emotionally-biased men in her life. As a result, Molly comes across as a party animal with a cat-like tendency to waltz in and out of people’s lives leaving them yearning for more of her apparently irresistible charisma.

As a character, Molly did feel a bit like an author’s fantasy of the perfect woman, and it didn’t help that her former lovers go through motions of morbid idolatry glossing over her faults as they go along. While this was amusing, as a female reader I also found it a bit silly and it ultimately made the male characters rather weak and underdeveloped. I think what McEwan was aiming for was ‘obsessiveness’, instead he managed to produce childish behaviour that wasn’t at all becoming for characters that are respectively a famous composer, a renowned journalist and reputedly the next prime minister.

One of the good things about the story is how McEwan reverses the roles, and has his male characters pine over a woman that was once ‘had but lost’. The jealousy that slowly emerges between them is also quite interesting, as it’s usually women who fight over a man, not the other way round. While Clive and Vernon complain about Georges possessiveness and his smothering attitude during Molly’s illness, they show signs of these very same traits even after she is dead and gone. Each man is seen to try to make Molly his own, but all they do is set each other up rather unsuccessfully I might add.

The strongest people in the novel were women; namely Molly and Garmony’s wife. The men seemed a little too lost and bewildered without them. For instance, Garmony cowers under the bed sheets after a scandal threatens his career. As the paparazzi wait outside his house, his wife (obviously the one who wears the trousers in the relationship) stoically marches outside braving the flashlights and the flurry of questions. She also picks up the pieces of her husband’s apparently irretrievable career from the brink of destruction with a rather clever interview that renders the scandal null and void in any journalistic sense. In short, I was left feeling little respect for the men, as all they seemed to do was mope and think about backstabbing the other ‘ex-lover’. I’m a bit ashamed to say it, but the men acted more like women and the women more like men.

Having said all of this, I can’t understand why McEwan was awarded the Booker Prize for this short novel. It’s far from perfect, though I must admit, the psychological thriller aspects of the book were wielded with expert precision. McEwan has that down to a fine art, as the plot twists and turns unexpectedly driving the reader through the narrative. My only wish was that he could have taken more time with it to flesh out his characters a bit more. If you ever decide to pick it up, you’ll find there is definitely room for expansion. Personally I was expecting ‘Amsterdam’ to be like ‘Atonement’ which is in my personal view is a far superior novel.

This may have been the Booker, but for some genuinely GOOD McEwan I recommend ‘Enduring Love’ or ‘Atonement’. McEwan is a very sensitive writer, who is able to pick out a beautiful, delicate tune from a handful of notes. If you enjoy a writer who looks at the emotional destruction within characters in great detail, then you’ve come to the right place. When given room to play, his style is discreet yet devastating. Such a shame that ‘Amsterdam’ did not live up to my expectations.

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