Amsterdam: darkly fascinating – but a loose link with the city

Although the book may take its title from the Netherlands’ capital city, less than 30 pages of Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel are actually set in Amsterdam. But a lot is packed into those few scenes, much like the rest of this thoroughly enjoyable book. 

At writer Molly Lane’s funeral, three of her former lovers meet: journalist Vernon Halliday, composer Clive Linley and politician Julian Garmony. Halliday and Linley are old friends and Lane’s undignified death leads the two of them to make a euthanasia pact. Neither will allow the other to needlessly suffer the way their old flame had.

The pair’s friendship comes under strain when Linley refuses to make a police report about an attempted rape he witnessed and Halliday comes into possession of incriminating photos of Garmony, who is currently serving as foreign secretary. They grow to hate one another over their disagreement of how the other has handled his moral conundrum.

The friendship comes to a tragic end when Linley travels to Amsterdam to conduct the opening night of his latest symphony and Garmony joins him, ostensibly to support his friend. (Dutch News concluded the location was significant enough for us to review the book.)

McEwan takes this dark morality tale and packs it into a 178-page thriller. The challenges are complicated. The characters reflect on Lane’s death, whether Halliday should publish the photos, if Linley has a moral obligation to go to the police.

Despite dying before the book even begins, Lane’s character looms large over those she left behind. The relationships between all of the men – including Lane’s widower – are complicated and nuanced.

Amsterdam won McEwan the Man Booker Prize when it was published in 1998. The committee called the novel “a sardonic and wise examination of the morals and culture of our time.” The New York Times called it a “dark tour de force.” Not everyone enjoyed it. In 2011, The Guardian called it McEwan’s “worst novel.”

Though its connection with Amsterdam is scant, the book is worth a read. It packs interesting characters and fascinating challenges into a tiny package. You can get your copy at the American Book Center.

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