Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Of relationships and moral dilemmas.

Synopsis of Amsterdam by Ian McEwanOn a chilly February day two old friends meet in the throng outside a crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly's lovers in the days before they reached their current eminence, Clive as Britain's most successful modern composer, Vernon as editor of the quality broadsheet, The Judge. Gorgeous, feisty Molly had had other lovers too, notably Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next prime minister. In the days that follow Molly's funeral Clive and Vernon will make a pact that will have consequences neither has foreseen. Each will make a disastrous moral decision, their friendship will be tested to its limits and Julian Garmony will be fighting for his political life.

My two cents

Larger-than-life Molly is shockingly dead, and she went demented and hopeless. The many men in her life come together at her funeral and an interesting series of events unravel and they find themselves in some compromising situations. This dark psychological study and satire-of-sorts highlights a complicated mesh of relationships and of circumstances unwittingly created.


What I liked:

I've read McEwan's Atonement and promptly fell in love with that book and McEwan. So I really looked forward to reading his 1998 Booker Prize winner, Amsterdam.

I thought this took place in Amsterdam (naturally) but it is set in London. Then why is it titled Amsterdam, you may ask? (This was a niggly point and I was dying to find out. This was one of my dislikes, which I'll go into later.)

Overall, this was very good reading: something that I really sunk my teeth into; something with bite.

The story is so tight that it all fits into all of 178 pages. Think about it: how many authors can come up with a fast-paced, moral-laden story, with five well-fleshed out characters in that many pages? Not very many, in my opinion.

The highlight for me was how the I became so engrossed in how these various relationships panned out in a complex cause-and-effect, how the past impacted on decisions being made and vice versa, and how people's true colours came to the fore.

This is a psychological study of sorts, where morals and ethics are tested. The twist is that a lot of this was brought about posthumously by Molly. It's pretty insidious how the darkness of human nature worms its way into the individual character's little dilemmas -- in Julian Garmony's politics, in Clive's creation of music, in Vernon's desire for recognition and affirmation as a journalist -- all underscored by what society deems as "success."

What I didn't like:

The characters left me cold. While I recognize that I don't need to feel like I can be best buds with any of them, it was very difficult to empathize with them since they're all pretty obnoxious. I usually am able to latch on to one or a few characters in my favourite reads but this one, nada.

Now the niggly bit. Why is this novel called Amsterdam? I only made the connection because I Googled it and The Book Bag pointed it out: that two characters made a pact to allow themselves the option of a mercy killing so they wouldn't suffer the same horrible fate as Molly -- and I found out that euthanasia is legal in Amsterdam. I guess I'm slow or maybe it just wasn't apparent enough. But I went ahhh, ok.   
Verdict: This packed novel explores the darkness of human character through moral and ethical dilemmas, and tight, intricate plot and obnoxious characters. Rather brilliant in plotting and its profundity, I highly recommend this for those who like a dark psychological read.


  1. I read this, too. But it was so long ago, I forget what I thought of it. I gave it five stars on, though.

    For the last few years, I've been reviewing everything I read. It bugs me that I didn't review this.

    1. Maybe a re-read will help you review it? I am the same way; if I let a review slip, I usually don't end up reviewing at all.


© guiltless readingMaira Gall