Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 23, 2020

Amsterdam (1998), by Ian McEwan, winner of the Booker Prize in 1998

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, won the Booker Prize in 1998.

January 1, 2003

Shakespeare used to use Venice as a setting for wickedness and corruption because Italian cities were fair game and a beaut contrast to the respectabilities of England. McEwan has used Amsterdam as a place of freedom to do dreadful things with drugs and state-sanctioned deaths, and to deliver a shocking finale to this very entertaining book.  A reviewer called Kirkham on Amazon dismissed this book as ‘middle-brow fiction British style – strong on the surface, vapid at the centre’, but I don’t agree.

Molly Lane dies, and her lovers meet at her funeral. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are great friends, united in their dislike of Molly’s husband, George, who’s stuffy and pretentious. They also loathe Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary and likely claimant to the Prime Ministership.

Clive’s a successful composer, struggling with writing a Millenium Symphony. (How long ago the Millenium fuss seems now!) He’s not avant-garde, he’s got pretensions to Beethoven. McEwan mocks him a bit, because he’s popular and therefore probably lowbrow, but he paints an interesting picture of the artist at work. Clive is at pains to shrug off the ‘creative genius must-not-be-disturbed while in seclusion’ tag. He makes time for his friends and he schedules his responsibilities to fit in around his composing efforts. But clearly something is not quite right because the deadline looms (as the Millenium did) and the work’s not finished. Clive finds he has to get some peace and quiet and takes himself off to climb in the Lake district and allow the muse to come…

The trouble is, that he is interrupted, even there. He’s had a row with his mate Vernon, a not-very-successful editor of a newspaper which is struggling to compete with the cut-throat world of English tabloid ‘journalism’. He is at war with the ‘Old Grammarians’, a pun to show their links to both the old public schools and the old ways of writing – he wants to do upmarket tabloids, with feature articles on ‘Siamese twins in local government’. There’s a very funny comment on this type of writing in which the editor discusses revamping their columns with the team, suggesting that they hire

‘someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You’ve seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name…. Twelve hundred words.’

Navel gazing is deemed too intellectual, what they want is ‘navel chat‘ and the topics they brainstorm are hilarious:

‘Can’t work her video recorder’. ‘Is my bum too big?’ ‘Buying a guinea pig’. ‘His hangover.’ ‘Her first grey pubic hair’. ‘Always gets the supermarket trolley with the wobbly wheel’. ‘Always losing biros’. (p129).

(I think of this excerpt often when I scan today’s papers, and every now and again I email it to the editor, with so far no impact whatsoever, but I live in hope…)

Anyway, Vernon has some compromising photos of the loathsome Garmony. Taken by Molly, they capture him in his pathetic cross-dressing. These photos are the subject of major debate even before publication – with injunctions in court, rival papers sneering at their use and so on. Clive tears Vernon apart because the freedom to be a cross-dresser is one of the freedoms they fought for in the 70s. Vernon wants to bring down Garmony because he’s a racist, a hypocrite, and a ‘scourge of immigrants, asylum seekers, travellers, marginal people’ (p73) but Clive believes that ‘if it’s ok to be a transvestite, then it’s ok for a racist to be one. What’s not ok is to be a racistif it’s ok to be a transvestite, it’s ok for a family man to be one too.’

Up in the mountains, Clive can’t shake off this row and the angst it causes him, and for a while it threatens to block the muse there too. Inspiration eventually comes, but so too does a rapist intent on harming a solitary female hiker. Clive sees the start of the violence, but – in the service of his ‘art’ – does not intervene.

When Vernon hears about this he is outraged, and when he is sacked over the photo fallout, he decides to avenge himself. Here the story becomes grand farce, as the two friends meet up in Amsterdam to poison each other. Clive is livid because the finale of his new symphony is no good. It’s derivative and unfinished because Vernon intervened and called in the police about the hiker, just in the last couple of days that Clive needed to finish off the composition. Not everyone likes the shocking ending, but I think it works. A reviewer on Amazon calls it Jacobean, something I should have picked up myself, considering my degree in Eng Lit at Melbourne University, where we studied Jacobean plays in some detail. Amsterdam is (in my opinion) a morality play where reprehensible characters get their comeuppance in a ‘tragedian bloodbath’.

There is much delicious satire in this book, such as the description of Clive’s mansion in its various incarnations as a flower child’s pad (p45) and a composer’s hideaway, still holding the detritus of the passing years. It’s quite clear (p64) that Clive is a very wealthy, comfortable snob and slob! He sneers at modern music (p22) and writes the kind of stuff the public likes (p23) – but there’s also a lovely passage which resonates with anyone creative about how the muse comes on p84.

There’s also an interesting thread about euthanasia. Molly dies a ghastly undignified death from some horrible disease that prevented her not only from caring for herself but also from tidying up her own affairs (which was how the photos got into Vernon’s hands). Appalled by this, Colin and Vernon made a pact to ‘help each other out’ if ever either one should be unable to fend for themselves, and it looks here as if McEwan is making a strong case for trusting someone with power of attorney to end the suffering of the terminally ill. However, considering how things turn out between Colin and Vernon, McEwan’s view seems to be that even the best of friends can’t be trusted with the power of life and death over another.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on New Year’s Day 2003.


  1. I always enjoyed his books – we parted company around Chesil Beach and I haven’t been back since except for The Children Act which I enjoyed. There is always some fine writing, even when a book overall doesn’t appeal to me.
    I loved your aside about sending that quote on rubbish articles to the editors!!


    • LOL Jan, publishing this has made me realise that I have given up on the trivialisation of news. In the beginning, I was outraged when what we used to call the broadsheets started doing it, and I thought it was worth making my contempt known. Now, when even the ABC has succumbed, there are other even more important things to worry about with the press: I read just yesterday, that the present state of affairs is a threat to democracy. (I can’t remember which paper it was… it was an American paper reporting on the campaign against Daniel Andrews and how the Murdoch press are trying to whip up the same kind of partisanship that’s so toxic in the US and Britain.)


      • Absolutely agree with you Lisa. Murdoch and his friends have brought us to the brink. Currently reading Jared Diamond, ‘Collapse’ on how societies choose to fail or succeed. I also just read a very fine article on the current trajectory in the US, in Noema Magazine. On the positive side, we have some new and very fine small independent media and a few of the big ones, still fighting the good fight. As RBG said, we have no right to give up.


        • Collapse… that was a great book… but depressing, because of course we can see how we are Easter Island-like doing the same destructive things…


          • I’m going to blame Covid brain for this – not sure how, but … I have of course read Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. But the one I have just finished is: ‘Upheaval: How Nations cope with Crisis & Change’. Compelling.


            • LOL at the doc today, I was blaming Covid for my Tim Tam problem. I never used to do the shopping, you see, and he never bought them unless I put them on thecause I’m now doing the shopping online, and Woollies always has list. And they were only ever there in case we had visitors. But be a friendly little reminder at the end about things I’ve might have forgotten to buy, we always seem to have good supplies of Tim Tams and no visitors to eat them.
              I hope the poets and song writers are working on a version of ” I blame Covid” maybe sung to the tune of I Still Call Australia Home…


  2. Don’t wish to be flippant but I think Frank Sinatra was close in his description of the Australian Press.


    • Gosh, that was a while ago. I can’t imagine what he would think of them now.
      My MIL was very unhappy about all that. She had tickets for his show, and was devastated when it was cancelled.


  3. I’ve often thought I should re-read Amsterdam because I didn’t like it a lot when I read it – not as much as others of his book that I read around that time. Yet, it was the one that won the Booker. I’m not sure why I was less enamoured. It may just be my level of exhaustion at the time I was reading it meant I had less energy for it!


    • That can certainly happen. The first time I read Cloudstreet I wasn’t very interested, but the second time, twenty years later, I loved it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this novel when it came out; on reading your post I find I remember little about it. Even the Jacobean ending…


    • Not one of the more successful Bookers then!


  5. I read this around the time it came out and your review has made me realise I remember absolutely nothing about it! It does sound really appealing and I think I’d probably get more from it now that I’m older too.


    • I must say, it’s been rather fun revisiting these old reviews. Some books I remember really well, and others, well, I’m glad I have the review to remind me!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Lisa

    Once again, your review has encouraged me to go back to read a book that I do recall enjoying at the time of first reading, which must have been in 1998. For some reason, I have not revisited Amsterdam, whereas I have re-read both Atonement and Saturday a couple of times each. When I first read Atonement, I do recall thinking how much better it was than Amsterdam. I still regard Atonement as McEwan’s best book, although I am also very fond of On Chesil Beach, Nutshell and Enduring Love. I must re read the early novels and short stories. I still buy and read each McEwan as it comes out, and think that he really has retained a remarkably high and consistent level of achievement in innovation, style and substance in his books. Long may they keep coming. Thanks again for provoking me to think of him again.
    Best wishes


    • It’s strange how sometimes the book that wins a major prize is not always the best one…


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