Author, Book review, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 198 pages; 1998.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam could easily have been included in my recent 10 books about journalists post. That’s because the lead character is a newspaper editor, who tries to revive a flagging career and a dive in circulation figures by publishing a series of photographs that could bring down a politician.

The novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1998, is a searing tongue-in-cheek account of journalistic ethics before the internet took over. But it’s also a terrific comedy about middle-aged men who will do almost anything to kick-start, or cling onto, stalled careers.

Though the humour is subtle, I tittered my way through it. Occasionally it’s what the characters say that elicits a chuckle, but mostly it’s the clever connections and set-ups that McEwan puts into play that deliver the laughs. It’s like a game of chess — nothing is immediately obvious, but then a character makes a move and you see what he’s up to or how it might play out before it actually does, which makes it such a fun read.

A trio of men

The story revolves around three men — the aforementioned newspaper editor, a composer and an MP — who are linked by one thing: they are ex-lovers of Molly, a photographer dead at the age of 46 from an unspecified illness. The trio are friends or enemies, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

It’s a rather complicated plot, but I’ll try to summarise it as best I can without giving anything away. Essentially, it goes something like this: Vernon Halliday, editor of The Judge, an upmarket newspaper, is handed a story that could rescue the paper’s dying circulation figures. Molly apparently took a series of photographs of a leading politician, the foreign secretary Julian Garmony, striking poses as a cross-dresser. The photos were found by composer Clive Linley.

Vernon wants to publish them, not only to boost the paper’s circulation but also to scupper Garmony’s chances of ever being elected as prime minister. Clive doesn’t approve: he thinks publishing them would betray Molly. Yet when Vernon ignores the composer’s concerns, he finds the outcome isn’t quite what he expected…

Dual storyline

There’s a second story line involving Clive, who is also struggling with his career. He’s having a hard time composing a new symphony for the new millennium — he’s missed two deadlines already — so he takes himself on a week’s holiday to the Lake District hoping to blow off the cobwebs, so to speak. While out walking he witnesses an argument between a man and a woman but at the very moment he should have interjected, he can hear a melody in his head that he doesn’t want to lose. He scuttles away to write it down before he forgets it, only to find out much later, upon his return to London, that the argument he witnessed was just the beginning of what turned out to be a rather brutal rape.

Vernon believes Clive has a moral obligation to tell the police what he saw. He refuses — again with unforeseen results.

I can’t say anything about the ending, which concludes in Amsterdam (hence the title) and brings both storylines together in a rather satisfying if completely bonkers and certainly not realistic way. I often find that with McEwan’s novels, though — his endings are strange and occasionally rushed, but I’m not sure whether this is typical of his style or just the handful of books I’ve read.

All up, Amsterdam is quite a fun read about a trio of pompous men in high-flying careers acting like they’re juveniles. It’s ingeniously plotted story with a suitably over-the-top ending that’s completely preposterous but which is not entirely out of keeping with the rest of the book. It’s a novel about journalism, politics and music, but it also explores betrayal, loyalty, ambition — and death.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2007

Books-of-the-yearYes, it’s that time of year again, time to look back on 12 months’ worth of reading to see what stands out and to choose 10 titles as my favourite novels for 2007.

It’s been a weird year, not least because my professional life got ratcheted up a few gears in May and the pace has been fairly relentless ever since. This means my reading (and blogging) time has been seriously curtailed, but I’ve still managed to devour at least one book a week.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title):

Between Two Rivers by Nicholas Rinaldi (2005)
‘One of those rare novels that takes a simple premise — the lives of the residents in a tower block in downtown Manhattan — and turns it into something truly special, in prose that is, by turn, elegant and shocking, eerie and mesmerising.’

Digging to America by Anne Tyler (2007)
‘While there is no real storyline to speak of, Tyler is able to explore two different views of America — the insider’s and the outsider’s — with tenderness and insight.’

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
‘Amid the dark, often depressing, subject matter there are chinks of light that make the novel surprisingly witty and, in a perverse kind of way, uplifting.’

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti (2003)
‘A delicious treat, one that transports the reader back to that time when the adult world was incomprehensible and the best thing about life was riding your bicycle throughout the long, hot school holidays that lay ahead every summer.’

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (2007)
‘A remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss.’

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (2007)
‘A fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs.’

Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
‘A very cerebral book (quite clever when you consider that the lead character makes his living operating on people’s brains) until you come to the unexpected, and somewhat shocking climax, which takes the action up a gear or two.’

Strangers by Taichi Yamada (2005)
‘One of those beguiling tales told in simple, hypnotic prose.’

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2003)
‘A beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.’

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany (2007)
‘A powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but also an entertaining and enlightening one.’

What books did you fall in love with this year?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 282 pages; 2005.

On Saturday February 15, 2003 almost a million people took to the streets of London to protest against the impending war in Iraq. It was the biggest ever demonstration witnessed in the UK.

As someone who took part in the Stop the War march, I was keen to read Saturday by Ian McEwan because it is famously set in London on that very day. But the protest is a mere backdrop to a more deeply personal story, that of a day-in-the-life of a well-established and highly successful neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, whose comfortable existence is rocked by a string of unforeseen events.

Perowne’s normal Saturday — playing squash with a colleague, watching his son’s band rehearsal, shopping for food and then preparing a lavish family meal in preparation for his daughter’s arrival home after a stint away — gets slightly turned on its head when, first, in the early hours of the morning, he stands at his bedroom window and sees a burning aeroplane arc across the sky towards Heathrow Airport, and second, when he is involved in a very minor car accident that turns into a potentially life-threatening situation.

These dual events turn out to be thwarted catastrophes, but there’s an air of menace that permeates Perowne’s thoughts and deeds throughout the day. In many ways, his deeply personal — and somewhat selfish — fears echo that of the country’s citizens at large who are determined to stop the Government heading into a war that no-one wants. But Perowne lives a fairly sheltered existence where the harsh realities of the wider world rarely intrude. Even the anti-war demonstration, from which he views at a distance, only serves to irritate him.

For much of this novel, the reader could be excused for thinking that not much seems to happen in Saturday. Perowne’s dull routine is punctuated by a series of unexpected incidents, but McEwan tends not to focus too much on the actual events but on what Perowne thinks about them. It’s a very cerebral book (quite clever when you consider that the lead character makes his living operating on people’s brains) until you come to the unexpected, and somewhat shocking climax, which takes the action up a gear or two.

I’ve made no secret that I think McEwan is a brilliant writer. In this book, much hyped at the time of release, he delivers a carefully considered and distinctly British view of the modern world, where terrorism has begun to intrude on every day lives. This book is essentially about a rich and successful man coming to terms with the fact that money does not buy everything — not even your peace of mind.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 176 pages; 2007.

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, is one of those delightfully languid books that should be read in one sitting — and at just 176 pages you can comfortably achieve this without frittering half your life away.

Set in England in 1962, it tells the story of two young, some might say emotionally naive, people who marry for the first time. Neither of them are sexually experienced and so the wedding night — in a hotel on the Dorset coast — holds particular significance for both parties.

Yet both Florence and Edward have different expectations — and fears — about “the moment, sometime after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to one another”. Edward is concerned that he’ll disappoint his new wife by the absurdity of the sexual act and his over-excitement, while Florence does not know how to explain that she is dreading the whole experience because the thought of it disgusts and repulses her.

This inability to communicate their concerns with one another has unforeseen consequences. As melodramatic as it sounds, what happens on their wedding night will alter the course of the rest of their lives…

This is a short, quick novel of remarkable depth. McEwan knows what makes people tick and is a master at capturing the moments, thoughts, feelings and misunderstandings that occur between humans.

He is also superb at conveying a sense of time and place. In this book, the mood of the early 1960s, where marriage and the relationships between men and women were dictated by a strict moral code, practically resonates off the page.

The only cricitism I have of On Chesil Beach is that the last part feels somewhat rushed, as if McEwan suddenly ran out of energy and decided to condense what could have been a 400-page book into less than half of that. But if you are looking for a quick but insightful tale about romance gone wrong then this could be the one for you.

1001 books, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 372 pages; 2002.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2002, part one of Ian McEwan‘s Atonement features some of the best fiction I have ever read.

Set on the hottest day of the summer of 1934, it evokes richly the individual lives of a family living in a lavish country house, and the preparations they undergo to stage a welcome home dinner for their eldest son. But the happiness and excitement of the festivities soon turns on its head when a tragedy occurs on the estate and the finger of blame is pointed at the wrong person. This is something which 13-year-old Briony Tallis spends the rest of her life trying to atone.

Unfortunately, I found that parts two and three of the book did not live up to the promise of the first (it didn’t help that I had guessed the perpetrator of the crime).

While McEwan’s writing is gorgeous, with a deep undercurrent of suspense running throughout, I found that the ‘tricks’ he played on the reader towards the end were mean-spirited and disappointing.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Vintage

‘Enduring Love’ by Ian McEwan


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; pages; 2001.

Following a fatal hot-air ballooning accident in the Chiltern Hills, a witness to the incident, Joe, suddenly finds himself embroiled in a deeper mystery; why was the victim in the area in the first place and why is another male witness, Jed, now stalking him?

In this well-crafted suspense novel, Ian McEwan explores the notions of science versus religion; the meaning of love and stability in the midst of disruptive circumstances; and the damage which can ensue when a disturbed personality suddenly develops a ‘thing’ for you.

Towards the end, it goes a bit over-the-top, but generally McEwan deftly balances the story so that you are never quite sure whether the stalker is real or merely a figment of Joe’s imagination.