Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, is a darkly comic novella dealing with themes surrounding privacy, control, and death. As in his other novels (Atonement, for example), McEwan crafts a narrative structure that is mostly linear but also has constant small revisions and loops.
An example of this structure is when, in part III, Clive is on a train to the Lake District, stewing over his argument with Vernon. The reader is shown, in great detail, how Clive feels and behaves but not why he feels this way. Eventually the reader is told what actually happened when the discussion that agitated Clive is revealed. This narrative loop provides the reader first with Clive's reaction to the argument and then with the argument itself. By breaking the narrative up this way, McEwan constantly evaluates the complex interplay between perception and reality.
The same thing happens when the narrator reveals Vernon's fate after his ill-advised push to publish the photographs of Julian Garmony. The flip-flopping of the media (for example, the editorial staff of The Judge and its board of directors, as well as the other press who had bid on the photos) is shown in impassive detail. The way that Rose Garmony comes out and shows the photos before they are published by The Judge is another example of this revisionist motif: the importance of the photographs isn't in their existence but in how they are framed and explained. By showing them in advance, Rose is controlling the narrative.
McEwan also deliberately obfuscates details in order to raise suspense and refocus the reader's attention. An example of this is the lack of information the narrator gives about Molly's illness and death and the schemes that both Clive and Vernon contrive to murder each other. The reader is deliberately kept in the dark about the doctors the men hire and the actual process they go through. The murders are only shown from the perspective of the men who are being injected, and they are both under the influence of an unknown drug, which makes them think that the woman administering the poison is Molly, who is dead.
The lack of information in this section of the book is a strong contrast to the level of detail devoted to Clive's numerous creative impulses and Vernon's multiple business decisions. By thoroughly grounding the work in their thought processes and intentions throughout the novel, the curt final section of the book creates an almost absurd contrast: the entire novel has been devoted to the lives of these two men and their various neuroses, and then they are suddenly dead—without so much as a last word.
Vernon's and Clive's deaths also give way to the final reversal of expectation in the text: the whole situation with Julian Garmony was actually orchestrated by George Lane. The release of the photos was a move intended by George to take both Garmony and Vernon out of the equation so that George could mourn Molly in peace without interference from her ex-lovers.
Knowing this, the reader then questions whether Clive and Vernon's assessment of George was actually correct. It is obvious that these two men are incredibly selfish, and this final detail casts more moral ambiguity into the situation by implying that they misunderstood George's actions, which were driven by a love for his dying wife. To further complicate the issue, George is also depicted as unpleasant: he is about to ask Vernon's very recently-widowed wife on a date.
Thus, the novel constructs narratives that constantly throw into doubt the accounts of Molly's life and death and whose situation is the most sympathetic: the reader is left wondering whose perspective is the most accurate. McEwan intentionally does not give an answer.