Amsterdam (novel)

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First edition cover
Author Ian McEwan
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Publication date
1 December 1998
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-385-49424-6
OCLC 42992366
Preceded by Enduring Love
Followed by Atonement

Amsterdam is a 1998 novel by British writer Ian McEwan. It is a morality tale revolving around a newspaper editor and a composer. McEwan was awarded the 1998 Booker Prize for the novel.[1]


Amsterdam is the story of a strange euthanasia pact between two friends, a composer and a newspaper editor, whose relationship spins into disaster.


The book begins with the funeral of Molly Lane. Guests at the funeral include Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, newspaper editor Vernon Halliday, and eminent composer Clive Linley. These three share certain attributes: each has a very high opinion of himself, each was at some time Molly's lover, and each regards the dead woman's husband, George, with a mixture of amusement and contempt.

Clive and Vernon muse upon Molly's death. It seems she had some kind of rapid-onset brain disease (not specified) that left her helpless and mad. Neither man can understand her attraction to Julian Garmony, the right-wing Foreign Secretary who is about to challenge the Leadership.

Clive returns home to continue work on his symphony. He has been commissioned to write a piece for the forthcoming millennium and much of the work is complete, all save the crucial signature melody. He resolves to go walking in the Lake District, as this tends to inspire him.

Vernon is the editor of a newspaper whose readership is diminishing. He is trying to change the content of the paper to be more sensationalist. George, Molly's husband, gives him a golden opportunity, but he and Clive argue furiously about the moral responsibility of the act.

However, in the Lake District, Clive faces a difficult moral decision himself. He chooses to walk away from a potentially dangerous situation he could have helped with, because his elusive melody, the crucial notes, have arisen and he has to get them down. Instead of helping, he crouches unseen besides a rock and writes his music. This has repercussions that will change his life.

During the course of the book Clive and Vernon become mortal enemies bent on exacting revenge. The consequences of their decisions, and a pact made between them, lead them both to Amsterdam where the novel's dénouement plays out.


The novel was well received by critics. In The New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani called Amsterdam "a dark tour de force, a morality fable, disguised as a psychological thriller."[2] In The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard wrote, "Slice him where you like, Ian McEwan is a damned good writer" and discussed "the compulsive nature of McEwan's prose: you just don't want to stop reading it."[3] In The New York Times Book Review, critic William H. Pritchard called the book, "a well-oiled machine, and McEwan's pleasure in time-shifting, presenting events out of their temporal order (flashing back in Clive's mind, say, to a conversation he had the day before) is everywhere evident. Vladimir Nabokov, asked whether sometimes his characters didn't break free of his control, replied that they were galley slaves, kept severely under his thumb at all times. McEwan follows this prescription in spades."[4]

The general public's reception of the book was generally more mixed. Of 381 reader reviews on the website of online retailer Amazon, the average rating is three of five stars.[5] Such mixed reception from audiences is unusual for a Booker Prize winner.[citation needed]


Amsterdam received the 1998 Booker Prize. Announcing the award, Douglas Hurd, the former British Foreign Secretary who served as the chairman of the five-judge panel, called McEwan's novel "a sardonic and wise examination of the morals and culture of our time."[6]


  1. ^ Sarah Lyall, "'Amsterdam' by Ian McEwan Wins Booker Prize," The New York Times," 28 October 1998.
  2. ^ Michiko Kakutani, "'Amsterdam': Dark Tour De Force," The New York Times," 1 December 1998.
  3. ^ Nicholas Lezard, "Morality bites," The Guardian, " 24 April 1999.
  4. ^ William H. Pritchard, "Publish and Perish," The New York Times Book Review," 27 December 1998.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Sarah Lyall, "'Amsterdam' by Ian McEwan Wins Booker Prize," The New York Times," 28 October 1998.

External links[edit]


Preceded by
The God of Small Things
Booker Prize recipient
Succeeded by