I finally get Ian McEwan: ‘Amsterdam’ (1998)


My copy of ‘Amsterdam’, picked up for $1 at Book Thug Nation in Brooklyn

Every few years I decide that it’s really time for me to start liking Ian McEwan.  I know how much happier my life would be if I achieved this; he’s written loads and publishes regularly so there’s a wealth of literature for me to enjoy if only I could get into it.

My previous experiences of his writing have been that I enjoy the humour and the accomplished style, but, before the end of the story something palls and so I’ve never been keen on re-reading.  As the only books that stay on my bookshelves are volumes that I plan on reading (either first time or as a repeat) this means I’m consistently slightly embarrassed about his absence from my personal library.  I am, after all, someone who prides themselves on being a cultured British reader.

My shame is finally over though, because I’ve read ‘Amsterdam’ and I loved it!  The characters, the first-world problems, the machoism – at last, it all slotted into place.

‘Amsterdam’ begins with a funeral at which we meet the unpopular husband and the high-profile lovers of the deceased Molly Lane.  George Lane is jealous, dull and petty, but it’s worth mentioning that we only learn about him from his rivals’ points of view.  These rivals are a newspaper editor, a composer and a politician.  The first two are actually good friends and their complex relationship and individual work struggles provide the action for the rest of the short novel.

Both men have major responsibilities and both also face ethical challenges that will test their morals, their friendship and their integrity.  The dilemmas are succinct and highly effective while, considering the start of the novel, the hint of death and retribution is never far from the surface.  The story is ‘dark’ and ‘twisted’ and all of the adjectives regularly attached to McEwan’s writing.

In the past I’ve taken issue with McEwan’s presentation of modern masculinity versus femininity.  Not in ‘Amsterdam’ though, where the dead femme fatale Molly is the heart of the story and, being dead, her character is legitimately up for grabs.  All of her lovers construct narratives either through media, music or political rhetoric and so it makes complete sense for them to appropriate her identity and legacy.  Her husband, incidentally, is a publisher.  There is a serious point being made about ownership and dominance in relationships, but it is never overworked or forced.

If you’ve liked but not loved: ‘Atonement’, ‘Enduring Love’, ‘The Cement Garden’ and/or ‘Solar’, you should really give ‘Amsterdam’ a try.  It’s one of those excellent books where absolutely everything works.

What about you, are there any authors you’ve been ashamed about not enjoying or any writers where multiple attempts have paid off?

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12 Responses to I finally get Ian McEwan: ‘Amsterdam’ (1998)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve never even attempted Edna O’Brien or Thomas Hardy – and I doubt anyone could ever persuade me to do so….. 🙂

    • I’m not going to be able to convince you to try O’Brien, neither ‘The Country Girls’ nor ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ worked for me. I got an e-mail from Netgalley though, saying her novel ‘Little Red Chairs’ is their book of the month for October 2015, so maybe I’ll get to read a persuasive review of something by her soon.

  2. FictionFan says:

    Amsterdam was the first of his books that I read – and I loved it too! I must say I find him very variable – Atonement I also loved but some of them have left me underwhelmed, and even occasionally quite angry at his blatant manipulation of his characters to ‘prove’ whatever point he’s trying to make. Love/hate, for sure.

    • ‘Atonement’ was somewhat ruined for me, but not through any fault of the writer. I’d got it confused with ‘Enduring Love’ on my MA reading list (don’t ask me how) and spend the whole book wondering what it had to do with medicine in literature … at some point I really do need to re-read it on its own terms. The thing is I then read too many of the ‘proving a point’ books (you’re absolutely right) to want to pick up Atonement again in a hurry.

  3. Dessa says:

    I’ve felt the exact same way about McEwan’s work – glad to hear there’s hope for me yet!

  4. I enjoyed Amsterdam too, as well as Atonement and The Cement Garden. There is a lot more Ian McEwan on the shelf to get through though… On the subject of worthy writers not enjoyed: to my shame, I have never managed to read Wuthering Heights, despite several (half-hearted) attempts. I find it impenetrable; likewise The Lord of the Rings.

    • I finally enjoyed Wuthering Heights on an extremely determined re-read. It greatly helped when I decided that I could appreciate the book while despising the characters.
      I completely agree with you about Lord of the Rings, though I was fortunate enough to have it read to me by my father. This means it was finished and was a pleasant bonding experience, but it’s not a book I’ve ever been able to get though on my own.

  5. DG says:

    I loved his prose work till 1981- after that he turned into a poncey, generic, up his own arse ‘English’ middleclass writer writing for likeminded people – fucker put me off reading prose

    • There are other prose writers out there! I did find ‘Enduring Love’ hard to take, but ‘Amsterdam’ is a) shorter and b) seemed much more aware of the limitations of its own small-minded rarefied world

  6. Stefanie says:

    Your persistence finally paid off! Do you think you will reread any of the books you did not like so much just to try them again?

    • I think I really should re-read ‘Atonement’ because I might like it if I just read it for fun (not for a course. By mistake). Enduring Love, no way. It was a set text on a course I taught for many years and think I’ve got everything I can out of it. Cement Garden … maybe. I’ll have to give it time first though

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