Ian McEwan is a very compelling writer. With that, I doubt anyone can argue, the man knows how to spin a phrase even when he describes symphony composition – which, to me, doesn’t really sound like the most fun someone can have 😀 And Amsterdam is a very well written, well structured, controlled novel. Sometimes, it even feels a bit too controlled – like a lab experiment, a bit too septic.
It all starts at Molly Lane’s funeral, where 2 of her ex lovers (and current very good friends), Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday meet and talk about the old & new times. Molly was killed by a mentally debilitating disease (maybe Parkinson? I don’t really know & don’t feel like doing the googling it takes to find out) and, in her last months, she was kept away from all her acquaintances by her very possessive and previously neglected husband, George – and this attitude is one of Clive’s and Vernon’s favorite subjects. The other is Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, obnoxious political figure, him too a former lover present at her funeral. Molly, though never a physical presence, is not just a mere memory – she comes alive with everyone’s thoughts, and she does seem like an interesting woman – albeit too much on the “quirky thus influential” side.
Once the funeral is over, Clive and Vernon return to their usual lives – the first as a renown composer commissioned to create a symphony for the new millennium, the latter as the editor of a respected but declining newspaper – The Judge. But Molly’s death – and more importantly, the quick onset of her illness and descent into darkness – still eats at the heart of both men, so they end up making a pact: should either of them be mentally incapacitated, the other will ensure him a quick and painless death. Through the course of 100 pages, a few key twists will force them both to uphold this little bargain: Vernon receives (from Geroge Lane, master manipulator) photos of Julian Garmony in drag (taken in privacy by Molly) that, if published, could destroy the politician’s career. This stirs a lot of controversy both at The Judge and between the 2 friends – Vernon thinking it is him moral duty to bring down a man that might take the country to ruin and Clive arguing on the side of relevance & right to privacy. The good old dilemma – is it worth destroying a life over a potential greater purpose. This causes a rift between the 2, that only deepens when Vernon decides to go ahead. Of course, Clive – an “artist” type, with all the self-absorbance that might entail – makes a morally disputable decision of his own: while hiking and trying to work out the final passages of his symphony he notices a woman seemingly attacked, or in a quarrel with a man and stands behind a rock, choosing not to intervene. Later he recounts the incident to Vernon who assumes the man must have been a well known rapist and, in a bout of vengeful fury, reports Clive to the police.
And here we come to Amsterdam. Hints have been dropped along the way, but only in the final 30 pages do we really get there. Amsterdam, where the law is lenient and euthanasia is not frowned upon; in light of their pact, the 2 friends decide to do eachother in. A rather ridiculous ending, if I ever saw one. Their motivations are feeble to say the least, and such a complicatedly mirrored plot is the most eloquent example of what I said in the beginning: Mr. McEwan is very controlled. And controlling. This has the air of dealing with the thorny issue of assisted suicide, when it just ends of being a sort of back comedy, or farce, with not much consequence. And to think it won the Booker in 1998 … I haven’t read any of the other short listed books, but I just might pick one up, at least for comparison purposes 😉 My favorite part of this “twisty” ending was the ironic fate of Clive’s symphony: the conductor & the orchestra deem is a shameful ripoff of Bethoveen, and refuse to play it; while Clive’s intentions had all along been to create something as powerful as Beethoven and felt he was only a few notes away from achieving that. Turns out, he may just have been right 😀
Review from The Guardian – here