Amsterdam by Ian McEwan ★★★★½
Edition: Vintage Canada (1999), Paperback, 178 pages
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize (1998), 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 Edition)
Original publication date: 1998
Sometimes going into a book knowing little to nothing about it reserves great surprises. I picked this one up more or less unplanned as I was needing a dose of literature, having indulge plenty in lighter fare this summer with lots of YA and detective mysteries and promising myself since long ago to read more books by Ian McEwan. This one did not let me down. The story starts at the cremation site of Molly Lane, which is attended among others by two of her ex-lovers and longtime friends, Clive Lindley and Vernon Halliday. One thing that has united them through the decades, other than their devotion to the lovely Molly, who was taken too early by a mysterious illness which robbed her of the control of her body and mind at the age of 46, is a common hatred of her hugely wealthy husband George Lane, who took advantage of her reduced state by taking over her life and keeping all her friends at bay in her rapid decline. Clive is a renown composer who has been commissioned to write a symphony to bring in the new millennium, while Vernon is the latest editor of a newspaper which has been struggling to remain competitive. Also there is the much reviled Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, who was also one of Molly’s ex-lovers, though the two friends can’t understand what she ever saw in him. They are both horrified at the prospect of being struck down with a debilitating illness as Molly had and like her, unable to make decisions for themselves as the end approaches, and agree that should the worst happen and either one lose his mind, the other would ensure to end his friend’s death in a humane way, with euthanasia a procedure which has been legalized in Amsterdam.
When George, who owns a 1.5% share of The Judge, Vernon Halliday’s paper, calls the editor up and says he’s got photographs which will make his sales positively explode, things become complicated. The photos were taken by Molly and they are intimate photographs of Garmony in feminine wear. Vernon immediately sees their potential for sending sales through the roof, though Clive, whom he shares this story with, is appalled. Surely Molly would never had wanted to make those photos public and cause a scandal, or to disgrace Garmony; therefore wouldn’t George and Vernon be dishonouring Molly’s memory by publishing them? Meanwhile Clive is under pressure to deliver his symphony within a tight deadline, even though the millennium itself is still years away, and he is hell-bent on delivering a piece that will mark him as a genius. He works night and day and makes his composition his only priority, to the point that when he witnesses a rape taking place in the Lake District when he is struck by a momentary inspiration while on an outing, he decides to ignore the despicable crime and keeps taking down notes.
From there the stage is set for the drama to unfold. I was reminded, once again of why I enjoy McEwan so much. This seems like highbrow entertainment, but also makes for highly entertaining reading, with everyone out for themselves at first, and then everyone out for revenge in the end, a combination which I’d say is impossible to resist. I’m putting it straight on the ‘to reread’ list.