This excellent book won the 1998 Booker Prize which is hardly surprising. It’s both a sophisticated and easy read and has turned out to be one of the quickest books I have ever read because I liked it so much.
The characters are very inviting and you soon get to know them intimately. The novel centres mainly on the friendship of two men who have something pivotal in common. They both have had an affair at some point in their lives with Molly Kane, a famous glamour photographer who died of a sudden and rapidly degenerative illness in her mid-forties. The scene is set at Molly’s funeral. Clive, an internationally famous composer and Vernon, an ambitious newspaper editor struggle to offer their condolences to George, Molly’s grieving husband, partly because they were embarrassed but mainly because they hate him. Also at the funeral is Julian Garmony, the deputy foreign secretary who is predicted to become the next prime minister of the conservative party. He too had an affair with Molly. So far, his other secret of being a cross-dresser has been kept hidden but this is soon to be exposed by his enemies, one of these being Vernon.
The story unfolds further with Clive horrified at Vernon’s actions of publishing the compromising pictures of Julian in a dress in his newspaper to increase readership because he believes Molly’s integrity and memory has been betrayed, especially because it was George who sold the pictures to Vernon that Molly had taken during her affair with Julian, with the intention of exacting revenge on him. However, Vernon is not impressed that his long-standing friend is so judgemental of him and sets out to expose a secret he knows about him! That’s just one example of the back stabbing in the novel. It is full of twists and turns, tricks and counter tricks leading up to a finale in Amsterdam (hence the title of the novel) with Clive and Vernon that is truly shocking – and sad.
I couldn’t help but think that McEwan held a greater affinity towards Clive than he did with Vernon because Clive was the more likeable of the characters. Admittedly he was ‘a bit of an old woman’, but he was also sensitive and kind. He had a great wine cellar and served good burgundy wine to his guests either a Richebourg or a Chambertin Clos de Beze. Vernon on the other hand was selfish and always put himself first. He was also impotent and McEvan captures this in a masturbation scene where Vernon makes an attempt to get an erection by repeatedly stroking his limp manhood to no avail. I was slightly disgusted that he didn’t wash his hands afterwards!
Amsterdam is eighteen years old now – so hardly a new book. But if you haven’t read it or want to become more acquainted with McEwan’s work, then I suggest you add it to your list. Let me take you into a little secret. I picked up my copy, which was in excellent condition, in a high street charity shop for £1.50 while rummaging through the book shelves. Best buy I came across in a while and easily the most enjoyable!
© Declan Henry