My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Amsterdam (1998) by Ian McEwan rightfully won the Booker Prize and the novel, being only 178 pages long, was claimed by the Sunday Telegraph as “a psychologically brilliant study of heartlessness.” And that is exactly what a reader will get: a superbly written piece of brutal heartlessness and blatant betrayals on all sides, but Ian does it so well it feels like the reader is getting slapped in the face with silk.
The story starts out in a wintry London at a funeral and revolves around the dead, Molly Lane, and her surviving husband, George, and her lovers: the struggling editor of The Judge Vernon Halliday, and the genius Clive Linley who is writing the musical score of his lifetime.
“At last,” Ian (author of Atonement) writes, “Clive was gripping George’s hand in a reasonable display of sincerity. ‘It was a wonderful service.’
“‘It was very kind of you to come.’
“Her death had ennobled him. The quiet gravity really wasn’t his style at all, which had always been both needy and dour; anxious to be liked, but incapable of taking friendliness for granted. A burden of the hugely rich” (p 9).
And then there is one final character the story revolves around: Molly’s former friend, the Foreign Secretary named Julian Garmony, who is later discovered to have taken pictures dressed as a woman and Vernon must decide if he will ruin the man. But for now, Clive, the musician faces Garmony at Molly’s funeral,
“Then the Foreign Secretary did an extraordinary thing which quite destroyed Clive’s theory about the effects of public office and which, in retrospect, he was forced to admire. Garmony reached out and, with his forefinger and thumb, caught hold of the lapel of Clive’s overcoat and, drawing him close, spoke in a voice that no one else could hear.
“‘Complete nonsense. She never said that.’
“‘Of course you’re bound to deny it. Thing is, we could discuss it out loud in front of the gentlemen over there, or you could get off my case and make a pleasant farewell. That is to say, fuck off’” (p 16).
And the heartlessness that is so popular in people these days just gets worse as Clive, out on a hike in the Lake District, witnesses a possible rape and decides instead to finish working on his masterpiece:
“The jewel, the melody. Its momentousness pressed upon him. So much depended on it; the symphony, the celebration, his reputation, the lamented century’s ode to joy. He did not doubt that what he half heard could bear the weight. In its simplicity lay all the authority of a lifetime’s work…
“What was clear now was the pressure of choice: he should either go down and protect the woman, if she needed protection, or he should creep away round the side of Glaramara to find a sheltered place to continue his work—if it was not already lost. He could not remain here doing nothing…
“Twenty minutes later he found a flat-topped rock to use as a table and stood hunched over his scribble” (p 87-88).
And far too often in this world we live in, we find pathetic men like Clive who choose to ignore what is morally right and instead focus on their own selfish needs and desires—and in any morally intelligent being, this sort of behavior is highly unacceptable. Ian, one may consider quite evident in this work, asks the hard questions about morality and ambition and friendship and betrayal.
According to the time of the book, Amsterdam had just passed certain laws to aid people in killing themselves (i.e., euthanasia), while Clive and Vernon, two very good friends, have an awkward talk, in hopes of not wasting away and dying from cancer like their former friend and lover, Molly Lane:
“‘So, what I’m saying is this—I’m asking you, as my oldest friend, to help me if it ever got to the point where you could see that it was the right thing. Just as we might have helped Molly if we’d been able…’
“Clive trailed away, a little disconcerted by Vernon who stared at him with his glass raised, as though frozen in the act of drinking. Clive cleared this throat noisily.
“‘It’s an odd thing to ask, I know. It’s also illegal in this country and I wouldn’t want you to put yourself on the wrong side of the law, assuming, of course, you were to say yes. But there are ways, and there are places and if it came to it, I’d want you to get me there on a plane. It’s a heavy responsibility, something I could only ask of a close friend like yourself. All I can say is that I’m not in a state of panic or anything. I have given it a lot of thought…’
“Both men accepted that the nature of the request, its intimacy and self-conscious reflection on their friendship, had created, for the moment, an uncomfortable emotional proximity which was best dealt with by their parting without another word, Vernon walking quickly up the street in search of a taxi, and Clive going back up the stairs, to his piano” (p 49-50).
“Finding the notes would be an act of inspired synthesis,” Ian writes of Clive. “It was as if he knew them, but could not yet hear them. He knew their enticing sweetness and melancholy. He knew their simplicity, and the model, surely, was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Consider the first line—a few steps up, a few steps down. It could be a nursery tune. It was completely without pretension, and yet carried such spiritual weight…
“During the first hour or so, after he had turned south into the Langstrath, he felt, despite his optimism, the unease of outdoor solitude wrap itself around him” (p 76-77).
And then there is when Ian, a true master, can combine all elements of his craft into a few sentences that, if one were to look closely and pay attention, give the story’s ending away:
“The hours passed, and Vernon picked up his copy of The Judge several times to read again about the medical scandal in Holland. Later on in the day he made a few phone enquiries of his own. More idle hours passed while he sat about in the kitchen drinking coffee, contemplating the wreck of his prospects, and wondering whether he should ring Clive and pretend to make peace, in order to invite himself to Amsterdam” (p 149).
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan is a simple, but elegant, read and can be completed in one or two sittings on a lazy afternoon when the rain has deprived the reader of an outdoor hike of her own. The writing springs to life on almost every page and the corruption that haunts weak men’s souls is just as relevant today as it was when the book was first published some seventeen years ago. And for these reasons, among many many more, this is why Amsterdam is a strong recommend.
More books by Ian:
CG FEWSTON is an American novelist who is a member of AWP, a member of Americans for the Arts, and a professional member and advocate of the PEN American Center, advocating for the freedom of expression around the world.
CG FEWSTON has travelled across continents and visited such places as Mexico, the island of Guam, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Taipei and Beitou in Taiwan, Bali in Indonesia, and Guilin and Shenzhen and Beijing in China. He also enjoys studying and learning French, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
CG FEWSTON earned an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership and Administration (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors) from Stony Brook University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University, where he had the chance to work with wonderful and talented novelists like Richard Adams Carey (author of In the Evil Day, October 2015; and, The Philosopher Fish, 2006) and Jessica Anthony (author of Chopsticks, 2012; and, The Convalescent, 2010) as well as New York Times Best-Selling novelists Matt Bondurant (author of The Night Swimmer, 2012; and, The Wettest County in the World, 2009, made famous in the movie Lawless, 2012) and Wiley Cash (author of A Land More Kind Than Home, 2013; and, This Dark Road to Mercy, 2014).
Among many others, CG FEWSTON’S stories, photographs and essays have appeared in Sediments Literary–Arts Journal, Bohemia, Ginosko Literary Journal, GNU Journal (“Hills Like Giant Elephants”), Tendril Literary Magazine, Prachya Review (“The One Who Had It All”), Driftwood Press, The Missing Slate Literary Magazine (“Darwin Mother”), Gravel Literary Journal, Foliate Oak Magazine, The Writer’s Drawer, Moonlit Road, Nature Writing, and Travelmag: The Independent Spirit; and for several years he was a contributor to Vietnam’s national premier English newspaper, Tuoi Tre, “The Youth Newspaper.”
You can read more about CG FEWSTON and his writing at
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN won GOLD for Literary Classics’ 2015 best book in the category under ”Special Interest” for “Gender Specific – Female Audience”…
Finalist in the 2015 Chatelaine Awards for Romantic Fiction…
Finalist in the 2015 Mystery & Mayhem Novel Writing Contest…
Praise for A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN:
“Fewston delivers an atmospheric and evocative thriller in which an American government secret agent must navigate fluid allegiances and murky principles in 1970s Tehran… A cerebral, fast-paced thriller.”
“A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a thrilling adventure which takes place in pre-revolutionary Tehran. Author CG FEWSTON provides a unique glimpse into this important historical city and its rich culture during a pivotal time in its storied past. This book is so much more than a love story. Skillfully paired with a suspenseful tale of espionage, A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a riveting study of humanity. Replete with turns & twists and a powerful finish, FEWSTON has intimately woven a tale which creates vivid pictures of the people and places in this extraordinary novel.”
CG FEWSTON‘s new novel,
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN, was published on April 2, 2015 —
10 years to the day of the publication
of his first novella, A FATHER’S SON (April 2, 2005)
“Thus one skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary
is as boundless as Heaven and Earth,
as inexhaustible as the Yellow River and the ocean.
Ending and beginning again,
like the sun and moon. Dying and then being born,
like the four seasons.”
found in Sources of Chinese Tradition, p 5