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I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time a few years ago and liked it, so reading another of McEwan’s books was long overdue. Amsterdam is a very short novel – novella really; I’ve done the caculations and it’s probably between 35,000 and 40,000 words.

In the wake of the descent into dementia and death of their former lover, Molly, two friends, Clive Linley, a composer working on a piece for the millennium celebrations, and Vernon Halliday, an editor of a failing newspaper, make a pact to have the other euthanised should they begin to lose their marbles. Then they have a big falling out over a scoop that Vernon wants to publish – and this disagreement has terrible consequences.

The story was a quick, pleasant read – too quick, really, and too pleasant, in a way. The arc of the story seems to cut off very rapidly and the dark comedy of the ending was predictable and over very quickly – it almost seemed like an afterthough – even though that’s what the story is tending to all the way through. The darkness and the comedy of the ending didn’t do much for me, either.

What I did like was everything that went before – from Clive and Vernon’s conversation at Molly’s funeral, confrontations with a goverment minister (also a former lover of Molly), Clive’s search for the melody that will put the final touch to his masterpiece, Vernon’s struggles to make the most out of some scandalous photos he’s received, the two men’s subsequent argument and each character’s monomaniacal quest to justify himself.

It’s this latter that is the key theme of the story. Clive and Vernon’s disagreement is perpetuated by their self-absorption. Vernon wants to run his story even though it’s very morally dubious. Clive lives a batchelor’s life and spends his time perfecting his millennium symphony – or worrying about how to do so. They’re both concerned with the integrity of their work, but both lose their personal integrity.

For the most part, this was a good read, but the conclusion left me rather nonplussed. It could have been a longer book, and the transition from indignation to something altogether darker could have been explored in more detail.

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