Amsterdam

Author: Ian McEwan
Published: 1998
Website: Wikipedia Page

Amsterdam reminded me of Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, which I recently saw and surprisingly enjoyed even though Malick’s characters were the best-acted miserable group of people I had ever seen in a movie. Similarly, Ian McEwan flits from one complex and miserable character to another as he explores the relationships between acquaintances (mainly distant) brought together by a character’s life and her eventual death. The (arguably) protagonist of Amsterdam, Molly, dies before the novel begins; and it is McEwan’s skill at revealing her characteristics through other people’s thoughts which make her the protagonist and which makes Amsterdam a novel about misery, change, and the effect of a death on a group of friends and acquaintances. From a newspaper editor to a politician to a famous composer, McEwan implies that Molly’s satellites were uninterested in each other until her death and funeral; this separation introduces the reader to those same satellites’ suddenly strengthened, very intense, and ultimately divisive connections.

Amsterdam’s literary heft comes from McEwan’s ability to suddenly alter the narrator’s point of view without affecting the plot; but the novel’s interesting plot and complex character development come from his creation of a moment in each chapter when the reader is sympathetic to each character as well as a similar moment when the reader finds each one despicable. None of the people in Amsterdam are likable, whether they are self-described geniuses, arrogant politicians, boring writers, or jealous widows. And this lack of likability allows Amsterdam to be about the events and relationships and not the people. At no point in this novel was I rooting for a character (although each one had his emotional moments). And the way Molly haunts the reader grants McEwan the right to unsentimentally explore death and how it brings people closer together with harmful consequences.

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