I picked up Amsterdam unexpectedly just as I finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing thanks to spotting a readalong with JoAnn @Lakeside Musing, Care’s Books & Pies and Althira @Reading on a Rainy Day.
I adored DNSWHN to pieces and strongly wish, hope and desire that it wins this years Booker Prize (my review is here). But judging by previous Booker winners and shortlists, there is absolutely no guarantee that my favourite will also impress the judges.
Not having read any of the other shortlisted books for 1998, I cannot say whether Amsterdam was deserving of it’s win or not but to my mind, choosing satire and black humour is always going to be a tough call. (I didn’t enjoy The Finkler Question either which was categorised as comic or farcical – one person’s funny is another’s ‘meh’.
Amsterdam and DNSWHN have many points of connect. But the strengths in DNSWHN show up the faults in Amsterdam; whereas the strengths (there are a few) in Amsterdam only add to the significance and the pleasure I received in reading DNSWHN.
I believed that Amsterdam was an unread book on my TBR shelf. At the beginning I was convinced that I was on new territory, but when I reached pg 66 I suddenly came across an underlined phrase. I had been here before!
The phrase was
unknowingly bending and colouring the past through the prism of his unhappiness.
Exactly the kind of phrase I would underline, and which I would have done so again with this read!
Why was this book so unmemorable to me?
The date of purchase gave me my first clue. 2005.
(I write my name, date and place of purchase in all of my books.)
2005 was the year when Mr Books and I rekindled our old love. It was a year of high emotional ferment and change for me. I struggled to read or settle to anything constructive that year. Amsterdam didn’t stand a chance.
In fact the only section of the book that struck a familiar chord during this reread was Clive’s walk in the Lakes District. The rest was like reading a completely new-to-me story. (Interestingly, McEwan himself likes to hike through the Lakes District & it was during a walk along the very same route that Clive took in the book, that he had the inspiration for this story – The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction 173).
McEwan can write wonderfully precise, thrilling, moving sentences. The hiking scene in the Lakes District is one of those times.
Amsterdam feels like it could be a Shakespearean tragedy – a dead woman, four men, a pact, the absurd comic relief of middle-aged men behaving badly as the big issues of fate, morality and civility play out. All it needs is Venice!
(Ha! I just got that Amsterdam is another European city with canals! Maybe there is more going on here than I first thought?)
No-one comes out unscathed. All the characters reveal their dark sides – their private tussles with civic duty, personal responsibility and getting the job done. The wife who lies to protect her family, the police who collude to catch/frame a criminal, the husband who lures his wife’s lovers to their doom. Even the lovely Molly, who we only ever see through her lovers eyes, was in reality, an adulteress who had affairs with married men.
But the ending is disappointing. Too neat, too contrived, too implausible.
The black humour did provide a wry smile or two but there were no trademark McEwan twists or shocks to carry us through or to drive his point home.
I was left with a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth and the conviction that McEwan despises everyone.
In the Paris Review interview linked above, McEwan mentioned that Amsterdam was one of those ‘turning points‘ in his writing career and that
I could not have written Atonement without first writing Amsterdam.
For all it’s curiosities and flaws, I will now always be grateful to Amsterdam for this fact alone.
Thank you to JoAnn, Althira & Care for having me along on their #damalong. It was #dam good fun!