Amsterdam by Ian McEwan – a Book Review

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
February 1, 2004

Unless one reads a few other novels by Ian McEwan, this slim satiric novel may offers one the wrong impression of this immensely talented writer. Amsterdam is a good novel but it falls short comparing to other masterpieces by the same author, like Atonement and Enduring Love.

Amsterdam is written in energetic tone, with its vivid description of musical creativity bundling cacophony, the hecklers and grammarian encroached editorial board and the comical British political scene, is worth this slender read.

Ian McEwan is an intelligent observer of his generation. Through his complex characters he surmises the generation that he belongs: “He looked around at his fellow mourners now, many of them his own age, Molly’s age, to within a year or two. How prosperous, how influential, how they had flourished under a government they had despised for almost seventeen years. Talking ’bout my generation. Such energy, such luck. Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state’s own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents’ tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals. When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were already safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that taste, opinion, fortunes.”

The story begins in a somber funeral gathering. Clive Linley, a classical music composer, and Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor, observe and chat on the sad passing of their spirited friend Molly Lane. Ironically, both of them were former lovers of Molly.

Clive and Vernon were reminiscing their relationship with Molly, her sudden falling into unrecoverable mysterious disease (Alzheimer), her husband’s dubious handling of her days of sickness, not allowing former lovers visiting her, were presented in satiric form. There was another lover present in the gathering, Julian Garmony, who was the powerful British Foreign Secretary, widely believed in line of becoming the next British Prime Minister. Molly’s husband George, a rich publisher was the host of this funeral assemblage, and Clive and Vernon were incensed since George had taken advantage of Molly’s ill-health as his another self publication stunt.

Molly’s death had shaken both Clive and Vernon, especially her last days when her memory and health were in ruin, a frightening possibility that both of these old friends considered to be horrific. Here is a description of Molly’s horrific ending: "Poor Molly. It began with a tingling in her arm as she raised it outside the Dorchester Grill to stop a cab; a sensation that never went away. Within weeks she was fumbling for the names of things.… Instead, she was sent for tests and, in a sense, never returned. How quickly feisty Molly became the sick-room prisoner of her morose, possessive husband, George. …The speed of her descent into madness and pain became a matter of common gossip: the loss of control of bodily function and with it all sense of humour, and then the tailing off into vagueness interspersed with episodes of ineffectual violence and muffled shrieking. … to die that way, with no awareness, like an animal. To be reduced, humiliated before she could make arrangements, or even say goodbye. It crept up on her, and then… 'Brain-dead and in George's clutches’…"

Clive hesitantly asks Vernon, “Just supposing I did get ill in a major way, like Molly, and I started to go downhill and make terrible mistakes - you know, errors of judgment and not knowing the names of things or who I was, that kind of thing. I'd like to know that there was someone to help me finish it . . . I mean, help me to die.”

So they came into understanding that they would help each other, if ever any of them suffered the same form of debilitating disease as Molly had suffered, they promised to use euthanasia, an arranged orderly death before plunging into complete insanity.

George, being a cheated husband, seeing all the former lovers gathered around exchanging pleasantries and mocking glances, was quietly plotting vengeance. Julian Garmony was the latest lover of Moly Lane, and George called Vernon, he offered him scandalous pictures of Garmony, his wild dressing in women’s cloth taken by Molly as pure fun. Vernon took this offer gleefully due to his extreme disliking of Garmony who had rebuked Vernon in Molly’s memorial gathering the other day.

Here the story turns into a ride of wild roller coaster. The pressure from the press, the political wrangling over the explosive pictures on the prospective future Prime Minster of Great Britain tried to shake Vernon from his powerful newspaper editorial position. Still he proved to be feisty, clinging to his determination in destroying Garmony. And the political establishment, Garmony and others took steps to counter Vernon’s charges by employing their own stunts, appearance before the news media just before the volatile news report get published, portraying Garmony as a family man but with common fallacies that every man possess, making him look like more human, in the process staging up a stark challenge on Vernon’s version of a rowdy Garmony.

While Vernon was swimming through the stormy waves of accusations and counter-accusations, Clive, the music composer, was going through his own struggle in composing the lasting musical symphony for the Millennium celebration. He embarked on a mountain climbing tour to clear up his increasingly barren mind, and witnessed a brutal aggression, a rape, but decided not to intervene so that his sudden oncoming creativity did not get obstructed from these “mundane” human activities. He regarded himself as someone with “heavenly” purpose, like creating immortal music. These moral dilemmas, the Good Samaritan intervention against the brutality on fellow human beings seemed to be beyond his stature as the master musician. Clive regards himself as a genius: “a passing thought, the minuscule fragment of a suspicion that he would not have shared with a single person in the world, would not even have committed to his journal, and whose key word he shaped in his mind only with reluctance; the thought was, quite simply, that it might not be going too far to say that he was a genius.”

With his writing elegance and dexterity, Ian McEwan takes this curiously slight novel to its satiric ending, an end that takes place in Amsterdam, and ending that enables a misleading destruction backed by reciprocated euthanasia.

Amsterdam is a fast read novel that does provide ample amount of chewing thoughts on the comparative morality, and the distorted views of one’s greatness over the surety of one common aspect of life that the mortals share: the death.


Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is: