If Alfred Hitchcock were alive, this would be an ideal book for him to bring to the screen. It’s as Hitchcockian a book as I can recall reading in recent years. In Amsterdam, Ian McEwan captures that same sense of menace lurking within the ordinary that you find in so much Hitchcock. There are even whiffs of Hitchcockian comedy. And it’s all delivered with McEwan’s meticulous and often poetic prose.
This short book, a novella really, delivers a twisty sort of plot whose secrets I’d rather not reveal. The gist is that two men each face a moral dilemma, and the repercussions of their choices are dire. But that’s a simplistic way of describing this story. There’s a lot packed in, and when I got to the end I was impressed at how well-constructed it is, with details that initially went unnoticed making major contributions to the story. It’s elegant plotting, leading up to a wickedly clever ending.
Clive Linley is a popular and, in his mind, brilliant composer; and Vernon Halliday is the new editor of a newspaper that he expects to resurrect from near death. The two men are old friends united by the love of a recently dead woman named Molly Lane. Both are obsessed with their work to the point that they will do anything to achieve the greatness they long for—and seem to believe they deserve. Neither man is particularly likable or even interesting on his own, but their situations and their thought processes make them interesting.
I understand that some people think the ending is over the top, but I didn’t see it that way, at least not entirely. To me, this book is about madness, not about the ethical dilemmas that seem to drive the plot. Early in the book, one character mulls over his fear of losing control of his mind, as Molly did in the final months of her life. But what constitutes a loss of control? Are we ever fully in control? Can we avoid all forms of madness? The whole book hinges on this question. (A Hitchcockian theme, for sure!) And looking at the ending through that lens turns it into something more than a clever twist.
Although I liked the ending, it’s not perfect. I think the final few pages did push the cleverness a little too far. It seemed more like a gotcha’ and less like a thematic statement, but I only feel that way in retrospect. I chuckled at the final pages when I first read them and only had reservations after, when I wondered why that coda.
Another great pleasure I found in this book was the music. I’ve never understood what goes on in a composer’s mind when he or she is working, but McEwan helped me get a flavor of the blend of inspiration and calculation that composers must use. I’d love a composer’s perspective on how well he captured it. It certainly felt real—I could just about hear some of Clive’s work from the descriptions. And the chaos of the newsroom seemed perfectly rendered; I could hear the overlapping voices and feel the energy.
I’ve gotten the impression that opinions about almost all Ian McEwan’s books run the gamut, even among his fans. Amsterdam, despite having won the Booker Prize, does not seem to be a favorite of many, except for Jenny, who put this on my list of books to read this year. I wonder if the Booker stamp caused people to expect something deeper or more epic. I find it difficult to compare this to the more ambitious Atonement; the two books are so different in scope. I’d rank On Chesil Beach as my favorite, but it too is altogether different. (Saturday is my least favorite; I just lost interest halfway through.) Amsterdam is very good at being what it is—a dark satire on the madness in modern life. If you read it, just think Hitchcock. That should put your mind in the right space.