Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan – he’s pretty much the master of creating moral entanglements out of the simplest of circumstances. He does it with a particular brand of sharp observation and strong characters. And he’s used all of his signature moves in Amsterdam.

I’ve had Sweet Tooth in my reading stack since it was released but on the basis of a friend’s recommendation, I picked up  Amsterdam instead – she reckons it’s his best. Interesting. Here’s my history with McEwan (in the order that I read them) –

  • Atonement – loved, still think about it
  • Enduring Love – intriguing beginning but no enduring love
  • On Chesil Beach – loved, short but intense
  • Saturday – can’t really remember anything at all about it – not what you want
  • Solar – laughed hard at one scene, the rest – meh.

So where does Amsterdam fall into this mix? After Atonement and On Chesil Beach but before Solar and Enduring Love.

What did I like? The way McEwan establishes characters so quickly and so deftly. Amsterdam is a slim volume (160-odd pages) and yet in one or two paragraphs I knew so much about Clive and Vernon, and their friendship –

“…was it not generally true that over the years it had been Clive rather than Vernon who had provided the music – in every sense? The wine, the food, the house, the musicians and other interesting company, the initiatives that brought Vernon to rented houses with lively friends in Scotland…”

Amsterdam was also a reminder of the power of words – all the more pertinent these days when it is far too easy to shoot off an unthinking text message or email, or to read a tone in such messages that was never intended.

“He knew from long experience that a letter sent in fury merely put a weapon into the hands of your enemy. Poison, in preserved form, to be used against you long into the future.”

At the core of the story is the idea that an innocent mistake can ruin lives. The ‘innocent mistake’ is device that’s used regularly by authors but McEwan’s execution differs a little – in the case of Amsterdam, there is no back-story to justify the characters’ motivations, virtues and weaknesses. Instead, the story is dished out, dry and plain, and the characters simply have to face the consequences – is there justice? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

What didn’t I like? Timing of particular events was perhaps a little too convenient. But I feel I can afford to be picky after the brilliance of Atonement and Chesil Beach.

3.5/5 It’s a short, satisfying read.

There are few food references in Amsterdam – a throwaway line about porcini and another about saumon en croûte. I don’t like cooked mushrooms very much at all (raw, yes please) and I’ve already covered the salmon dish so instead, here’s a salmon and potato salad similar to what I have planned for Christmas Day.


7 responses

  1. I felt the exact same way about Saturday, in fact, I can recall zero character names in it at the moment. That’s really sort of sad. I loved On Chesil Beach and Atonement too. Sweet Tooth is quite dry and I didn’t care for it, but I’d rank it above Saturday.

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