Immensely entertaining, Amsterdam is one of Ian McEwan’s more accessible books. It’s full of blustering bravado and, as the narrative twists and turns against the three generally unlikeable central characters, so the ebb and flow of empathy and sympathy shifts.
Clive Linley, Vernon Halliday and Julian Garmony: three 50-something men all relatively successful in their chosen field. Linley is an admired but conservative composer; Garmony, the Foreign Secretary with a groundswell of support for a challenge on the leadership of his political party. Vernon Halliday, meanwhile, is the latest editor of The Judge newspaper and charged with the responsibility of increasing its readership.
The thing they have in common is that all three were former lovers of Molly Lane. Only desirable, talented Molly is dead at the age of 46 from an unspecified, madness-inducing disease.
Linley and Halliday were long-time friends both before and since becoming involved with Molly. Both detest the politician. So when photographs come to light of a cross-dressing Home Secretary, Halliday recognises the perfect scoop for his beleaguered newspaper. Only Linley feels it’s unethical to use the images, images taken privately by Molly. Publication to him would be letting their recently deceased friend down.
So begins a relatively short novel (170 or so pages) that nevertheless takes on big themes. The consequence of action and the dilemma whereby a moral decision goes wrong is, as with many of McEwan’s other novels, present. But the level and depth of friendship and loyalty are questioned as selfishness, heartlessness and bloody-minded stubbornness also come into play.
Each of the three men sees themselves as a victim – and, at different times, they are. But they’re also each a perpetrator of a moral conundrum.
Along with its positioning and questioning, Amsterdam is, at times, funny. Clive Linley is incredibly pompous and out of tune (sic) with the world around him. Halliday is based on an amalgam of numerous high-profile editors of British newspapers such as The Times, The Telegraph and The Sun. And whilst it may not be McEwan’s best (Atonement, anyone?), it’s an immensely enjoyable read and which can be run off in a day or two.
In spite of five shortlist nominations, Amsterdam represents Ian McEwan’s only Man Booker Prize win, collecting the award in 1998 and beating out, among others, Beryl Bainbridge (Master Georgie) and Julian Barnes (England, England).