Escape from Amsterdam by Barrie Sherwood

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Escape from Amsterdam by Barrie Sherwood

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A Japanese undergraduate student has to rescue his sister from a career singing for, and otherwise servicing, the gangsters at the titular theme park in this thriller-styled entertainment.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1862079588

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Japanese University student Aozora is used to interruptions to his studies - his father telling him how lucky and prestigious he is to be in the course he is, his dreams of the bribes he can pocket when working in the Ministry for Construction, his wishes he'd get back with his ex and his scoring of every other female in comparison, and so on, but not interruptions like these.

First, there's the small matter of a fortune in debt he owes to some small-time thugs. Then, there's the death of a relative and the way he's dragged back to his swampy, backwoods village to meet up with his father and try and arrange the whopping inheritance he's now due.

Then, there's the search for his sister Mai, who as co-inheritor needs to be present so that both can sign their fifty per cent into their own hands. Unfortunately, this is by no means easy, and it soon becomes clear to Aozora that Mai needs to be prised from the grip of some much bigger guns in the underworld, and from their links with a Dutch-themed pleasure park with Yakuza connections.

Out of all the books generous publishers have been willing to give to the Bookbag for my perusal, this one had perhaps the hardest time of winning me over. It's dressed, with blurb and cover quotes, as if it is some state-of-the-nation novel regarding a country I don't much care for, Japan, written by a debutant writer who now resides in the land of the rising sun that is Norwich.

Luckily, the book is a lot better than that may sound. The narrative is a very good attempt at a rollicking adventure, involving gangsters missing fingers, girls missing clothes, archaeologists missing pots...

A lot of the time I was wondering why this book was foisted on me by a Barrie Sherwood - surely it would serve better as having been written by a Japanese author, getting into a local teenager's mindset more successfully, and having the sensitivity to local story a British writer would not. I needn't have worried, as while the teenager seems to have concerns recognised globally, there are clues that Sherwood has got his mind set on some very Japanese themes.

By which I don't mean the narrative is swamped by Pachinko, neon, and old traditions facing a modern Salaryman, food-on-the-go, capsule hotel lifestyle - although all are present and correct. No, the very fact that a lot of the plot is set in and around Amsterdam, the titular venue where restaurants from around the world force the tourist to order their food in Italian, French or whichever language is appropriate, where Holland is truncated and bastardised into a day out, and where just outside the grounds Japanese history is forsaken by the big wigs for a new race track's sake, suggests the death of a culture our hero didn't think he much cared for.

There is, then, cause and effect, in having a Brit in his mid-thirties covering the concerns of a land so distant to most of his audience. Dare we mention the phrase post-modern? This novel tucks itself into that mindset too, breaking off into cartoon for some pages, the narrative turning into sports commentary for one action scene. More of this might even have been better.

Such concerns are there for those who wish to dissect the book and get the full gist of the detail. Japan, gives us one message, needs to escape such trashy cash-cows as Amsterdam. For other readers, there is still a very commendable plot, with Mai's escape being much more important.

Both sets of readers win with this snappy read, which surprised me by how straight it could be read as a literary thriller. Sure, it has very little in the way of plot twists, but the writing is sharp, some humour works, and the character, however easily he may be swapped for another nationality, is very identifiable. Great fun too, is the cameo from the sex doll manufacturer, showing us from the start the break-down of all things Japanese.

This isn't a world-breaking read, but is recommended to those interested in Japan, obviously, and is worth considering by those looking for a quirky read and a more exotic setting to their gangster-adventure books. It's not recommended you read it while hungry, and with no sushi or other Japanese food on hand though - that sounds as tormenting as chopping your own finger off...

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Buy Escape from Amsterdam by Barrie Sherwood at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Escape from Amsterdam by Barrie Sherwood at


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Sarah Passingham said:

Don't always judge a name by its roots - Barrie Sherwood is a Canadian who has stamped the globe as frequently and as far as his missionary parents, and not British, even though he was living in Norwich, UK at the time of writing. Did you catch the Max Sebald references with the embedded illustrations, no captions and often no obvious reference? This is a cleverer book than you might suppose.