How Did This Win the Booker?: Amsterdam

amsterdam1Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam wants to pull a fast one on you. It looks like a fully-realized drama of two old friends, Clive Linley a British composer commissioned to write a symphony for the millenium, and Vernon Halliday, an editor of a struggling newspaper trying to save it from crashing and burning. However, in its final third it turns into  what other reviewers have called a morality fable. Frankly, I found it a waste of the good work of the first two-thirds and a cheap trick to pull on the reader. What seems even more problematic is the close connections between McEwan’s novel and Albert Camus’ The Fall. Where Camus’ novel is a properly philosophical investigation into morality, McEwan’s novel falls apart and fails to come together at the crucial moment.

This might be because McEwan actually hates the characters he is writing. The opening scene is quite brilliant as we are introduced to Linley and Halliday via the funeral of Molly Lane, a former lover of both. We are also introduced to her controlling husband, George Lane who also owns a share in the paper Halliday manages, and Julian Garmony, a rising star in British conservative politics and current Foreign Secretary. All of these characters, including the dead Molly, are important players in what turns into a farcical double murder at novel’s end. And it is a shame because McEwan writes quite brilliantly about Linley’s composing process, managing to get me to like him and even root for him. His writing also clearly expresses the rapid-fire, high-pace life that Halliday lives, although it was less effective in bringing me on to his side as I was not too upset by his fatal decision to publish controversial photos of Garmony in drag (taken by none other than Molly – only in writing this do I begin to realize how unbelievable parts of the plot are). I’d say about halfway into the novel, McEwan’s irony and hatred begins to come through with both characters: Linley in his belief that he might be a British composing genius and Halliday in his inability to see through Frank Dibbin’s politicking and savvy maneuvering.

This all brings me to the end of the novel when * SPOILER* Linley and Halliday independently orchestrate the euthanisation of the other person. The novel closes with George reflecting that he might now get to have a proper funeral for Molly without having to worry about ex-lovers giving each other meaningful glances. Garmony, is exiled to political obscurity by the photos, and George thinks about asking Halliday’s widow to dinner. I was incensed by this callous treatment of character. Perhaps I did not pick up the clues early enough or I was thoroughly gulled by McEwan’s writing. Either way, I hated the ending and found Amsterdam far less than it could have been. Camus’s The Fall works as an exploration of morality because it has a fair amount of depth and heft to it. Amsterdam is shallow and pretentious and I put down with a sour taste in my mouth. Morality was the last thing I had on my mind. I had been meaning to read some McEwan based on favourable reviews from readers I trust. However, I regret putting this on the list. And, let’s not even think about how this book managed to win a Booker prize. Seriously? I’m losing faith in the ability of prize committees to award based on merit …

I would not recommend this book to readers.

McEwan, Ian. Amsterdam. London: Random House, 1998. Print.



  1. What a shame! I loved Atonement and Saturday so much that I have always been on the lookout for more by McEwan. Disappointing to hear that this one doesn’t live up, but at least I won’t be wasting my money or my time on it now!

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