In which Netty goes looking for Atonement, makes an unscheduled trip to Amsterdam, and discovers her new favourite author …

April 11, 2013

ImageWhen Andy and I first canvassed the idea of tackling unread books from our own shelves for this year’s Reading Challenge, I put together my list more or less on the spot. I knew pretty much exactly which books I had overlooked, for one reason or another, for years (and sometimes years and years). The list I scribbled down in the Raccoon Bar in Preston that afternoon (not a bad drinking establishment, despite the sometimes-unnerving proliferation of taxidermy around the joint; you should check it out sometime, Melbourne peeps) – and that I still have – lists Ian McEwan’s Atonement somewhere near the bottom.

Problem is, I don’t actually own Atonement. Hunting through my bookshelves – an onerous task at the best of times – revealed that the McEwan book I do have in my possession is Amsterdam, his 1998 Booker Prize winner (he’s been nominated six times). Well, it’s an easy mistake to make, y’all …

I’m not really sure when I bought Amsterdam; my copy is a 2005 reprint, so I guess it was sometime around then. I seem to recall it was purchased as part of a three-for-two type of deal. Obviously I know of McEwan by reputation – he has long been part of that lengthy list of authors on my ‘to-do’ list; a list that never really shortens, because for every book read, there is always another to add to the pile.

OK, enough of the preamble, let’s just cut to the chase – on the strength of Amsterdam, I think I have waited way too long to become acquainted with McEwan, an English writer widely considered one of the modern-day’s best. After finishing the book in one gulp (it’s a slip of a thing, clocking in at a mere 178 pages), I wanted to go down to my local bookshop (yeah, yeah, I’m old school) and buy EVERYTHING HE’S EVER WRITTEN and then call my boss and say that I NEED TO TAKE ABOUT A MONTH OFF WORK RIGHT NOW THIS VERY SECOND in order to read them all. McEwan has penned a dozen novels (along with a couple of short-story collections, children’s books and screenplays), so a month would do just nicely – that would also give me time to do other important things, like eat, and sleep, maybe have an occasional shower …

McEwan is that rare blend of literary and popularist; it’s a very, very fine tightrope to walk, and few writers successfully make it to the other side of the wire. Amsterdam is extremely accessible, a very enjoyable read, an irresistible page-turner that gallops along at a 1200m-like clip. There’s not much at all to fault here – the characters are perfectly composed; finely, intricately drawn portraits of all-too-realistic, flawed human beings – the reader can relate and empathise with them. The plot is original, the story-telling compelling; it strikes just the right balance throughout, masterfully building the suspense to the final denouement. The writing is absolutely exquisite, with nary a word gone to waste. The novel’s two main protagonists are a composer and a newspaper editor, respectively; while I can’t comment too much (or at all, really) on the world of classical music, I am pretty familiar with that of print journalism – and McEwan absolutely nails it. I looked up the 1998 Booker short-list – McEwan beat out Julian Barnes (another very worthy recent discovery of mine) and Beryl Bainbridge, along with three other writers I’d never heard of, that year. Maybe I should closely check out who he didn’t beat in his five unsuccessful nominations – those must be some hella good books …

I’m not going to be saying a whole lot about Amsterdam’s plot – no spoilers here! – although I must commend whoever wrote the back-cover liner notes on my copy for perfectly summing up the contents whilst giving pretty much nothing at all away. As the novel, set in London in the mid-1990s, opens, two old friends – Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday – are attending the funeral of Molly Lane. Lane, the former lover of both men, was a 46-year-old restaurant critic who had quickly succumbed to an unnamed disease that robbed her of her mobility, speech and dignity.

Both in their late 40s, Linley is a successful modern classical composer struggling to complete the millennial symphony he envisions as his masterpiece, while Halliday is the beleaguered editor of The Judge, a broadsheet struggling to stay relevant amidst rapidly declining circulation. Neither man has much time for Molly’s wealthy widower George Lane, who owns one and a half per cent of Halliday’s paper, nor for the Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, a right-wing politician eyeing off the prime ministership – and, crucially, another of Molly’s ex-lovers.  

Feeling vulnerable after Molly’s death, the two men – whose friendship spans 25-odd years – make a pact. Then George Lane offers Halliday a professional opportunity too good to refuse, with an accompanying moral dilemma, while Linley heads to the Lake District in an attempt to break his writer’s block, but inadvertently stumbles on a situation that he unwisely chooses to overlook. The consequences of both – and an ensuing unravelling of their friendship – ultimately lead the men to their date with destiny in Amsterdam, where Linley is set to unveil his symphony.

Several of McEwan’s books have been turned into successful films; I’m quite surprised Amsterdam – which is ripe for cinematic adaptation – is not among them. Maybe one day …

Anyways, that’s about the size of it. I’m off to my local bookshop with my credit card … oh, hold on. I’m not. It’s almost midnight, and the bookshop is closed. What’s that, you say? I can order books on the internet and they’ll be here tomorrow? Or I can download them on to an e-reader and enjoy them immediately? Oh, you weird and whacky kids, you …

One comment

  1. I’m off to buy a copy.

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