Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews


Ian McEwan
(Booker Prize Winner - 1998)
Random House, 1999 178pp
ISBN: 0 09 927277 6

reviewed by Ann Skea

The fantasies of a cuckolded husband? A revenge on critics, editors and politicians? A prophetic vision of the working out of Zippergate? This story could be all of these, but it is also a compelling depiction of human ambition, pride and self-deception; taken, I would have to add, to a somewhat fantastic conclusion.

_Amsterdam, it seems to me, is a sardonic, rather black joke, in which McEwan stretches the bounds of plausibility just far enough to make its joke nature apparent. And the topicality of his theme is part of the joke.

Revelation of the secretive, sexual practices and hypocrisy of Julian Garmony (an arrogant, clever and powerful Foreign Secretary), are the topical crux of this story. And Garmony's cool, professional wife has more than a little resemblance to Hilary Clinton as she stands by her man until the crisis is resolved. Did Hilary read an early manuscript of this book, I wonder, and see the wisdom of Rose Garmony's actions, or were they both just clever women? Was McEwan surprised that his instinct for character analysis was so accurate: did he follow Hilary's loyal role-playing with satisfied glee?

Clive Linley, too, ends up as a joke. As a successful composer, he shares something of McEwan's own creative struggles. And as he strides across the Lake District peaks allowing the final and critical passages of his Millennium Symphony to come to him, you can almost believe that this is how McEwan himself finds his inspiration. Clive, however, has several fatal character flaws, Even though he is scathing about artists ("novelists were by far the worst", he thought) who play "the genius card" to excuse their own behaviour, he is not above sacrificing others to his art. The question is, whether his art is worth such sacrifices. And the answer, of course, depends very much on who was asked.

Vernon Halliday, the third of the cuckolding lovers in this story, is a newspaper editor, for whom large circulation figures (and possibly jealous revenge) over-ride humanitarian considerations. He, too, gets his comeuppance in the story but not before his character has been beautifully and subtly demonstrated to the reader.

George Lane, the often cuckolded husband of "feisty", recently deceased Molly, hardly appears in the book. But he survives and, so it seems, thrives. Having suffered Molly's many infidelities, and cared for her through her final, dehumanising illness, George is rewarded financially and emotionally at the end of the book. A reward for noble selflessness? Hardly. For it was George - poor, sad, contemptible George - who deviously set this last destructive game in motion, even if the other players did eventually bring about their own defeat.

Human nature is a funny thing, and Ian McEwan is expert at charting the grim jokes it can sometimes play on people. His books usually leave the reader more thoughtful than mirthful. But Amsterdam is too full of sly jokes, and finally too "un-reasonable" in its resolution, for us to take it too seriously. Like the city of its title, a place where "the Dutch and their reasonable laws" maintain a calm and ordered surface, this books shows how easily life can be disturbed by people who take reasonableness to extremes. Reasonableness, it seems, is as subjective for most people as any other ethical standard, and to rely on it in others is a joke.


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