Saturday, February 20, 2010

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is one of those unusual writers nearly everyone loves. His prose is smooth and calm, with interesting characters mixed into a deceptively simple plot. I am tempted to throw away all my scruples about revealing too much of the story, since McEwan fooled me so thoroughly, but I won’t.

His prose pulls the reader along, like a lazy day on the river. And even though we might hear a dull roar ahead, we are two closely bound into his story to pay any attention. Then, when it’s too late, the end comes and we are flying over the waterfall in shock – and delight!

Clive and Vernon have been friends for a long time. They both had a relationship – at different times – with Molly. Clive is a composer who has been commissioned to compose a symphony for the celebration of the millennium. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and closure. The both have a tense relationship with the wealthy George, widower of Molly. The story opens at Molly’s funeral. That is all you get.

This typical scene has Clive working on his symphony as the deadline approaches. Constant interruptions prevent him from piecing together fragments of the ending:

"At nine-thirty he stood and decided to pull himself together, drink some red wine and get on with the work. There was his beautiful theme, his song, spread out on the page, craving his attention, needing one inspired modification, and here he was, alive with focused energy, ready to make it. But downstairs he lingered in the kitchen over his rediscovered supper, listening to a history of the nomadic Morroccan Tuareg people on the radio, and then he took his third glass of Bandol for a wander about the house, an anthropologist to his own existence." (150)

I put down the novel after reading this passage, and wandered through my house looking at paintings, carvings, drawings, photos, and books that spelled out the interests of my life. I tried to imagine what someone who did not know me might think. Then, I understood what Clive was doing.

If you have never read McEwan, many of his novels are good places to start – Atonement, or A Child in Time, or Saturday, or Black Dogs, or, of course, Amsterdam, which won the Booker Prize in 1998. I am working my way through his 12 novels – this is my fifth, and it is about time I went on a spending spree and completed my collection. Five Stars

--Chiron, 2/18/10

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