Day 1173: Atonement

Cover for AtonementBest Book of Five!
Ian McEwan is a master at turning everything you think you know about a novel on its head, and he does that effectively in Atonement. This novel is a reread for me, the first one by McEwan I ever read, and I found it breathtaking. It is just as enjoyable when you know its secrets.

On a hot summer day in 1935, Briony Tallis commits a terrible crime. At thirteen, she is an imaginative but naive girl, a budding novelist. She misunderstands some interactions she witnesses between her older sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s childhood friend, Robbie, and this misunderstanding provokes her to tell a dreadful lie that ruins lives.

Five year later, Briony is a nurse at the start of World War II. She is trying to get published as a writer, but she is also concerned to atone for the lives she ruined.

This novel draws you in to the hot summer day and carries you along. It is beautifully written, and it shows great insight into the mind of the romantic, self-important child that Briony was. I can’t say much more about this novel without giving it away to the few of you who haven’t read it or seen the movie, but I believe it to be a postmodern classic. In short, this is a great book. It is intelligent, with ideas to ponder but with a narrative that just sweeps you along.

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Day 675: Amsterdam

Cover for AmsterdamThe Booker Prize people liked Amsterdam a bit more than I did. Although the shattering last page of McEwan’s Atonement absolutely upended that novel, the same technique did not work as well for this one. Perhaps the problem lies with my having seen McEwan do this several times already.

The novel begins with the death of Molly Lane. Two old friends, both former lovers of Molly, meet at the funeral. Clive Linley is a world-famous composer, and Vernon Halliday is an editor trying to save a floundering newspaper. At the funeral is another of Molly’s former lovers, foreign secretary Julian Garmony, a right-wing bigot whom both men dislike. They all pay stiff respects to Molly’s possessive husband George.

The brush with mortality makes both Clive and Vernon a tad hypochondriac, and they end up exchanging a pledge. But various stresses will soon interfere with their friendship. Clive is struggling to complete what he thinks will be his masterpiece in time for a performance in Amsterdam. And George has offered to sell Vernon some compromising photos of Julian that he found in Molly’s papers. Vernon has to decide whether publication of these photos will result in increased sales or backlash.

This novel is darkly humorous. None of these men is a sterling individual. In fact, they are all morally bankrupt. Clive seems the least at fault for quite some time, but then he does something unforgivable and justifies it as being for his art.

It’s difficult to explain my main criticism without revealing the ending. I can only say that the implications of the final page do not make sense, that there is no way that the character could have known how things would work out. So, I do not think the surprise ending works as well in this case as in other McEwan novels.

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Day 385: Sweet Tooth

Cover for Sweet ToothBest Book of the Week!

I’m always suspicious of book blurbs that compare one writer’s books to another’s. On the cover of Sweet Tooth, a blurb says “Jane Austen meets John Le Carré meets John Barth.” To my shame, I can say nothing about John Barth (except that I attempted once without success to read The Sot-Weed Factor), but Sweet Tooth has nothing to do with Austen except that she is mentioned in it and has only a few similarities with Le Carré but none of the extreme tension. Generally speaking, I don’t really believe that the work of one writer is like that of another, and certainly no one is like Ian McEwan.

Serena Frome is a smart, beautiful young graduate from Cambridge in the early 1970’s when she takes a job as a very minor employee of MI5. She has been groomed for this position by her much older mentor and lover, Tony Canning, a don. She is a naive young woman from a relatively privileged background who loves literature in a fairly superficial way (speed reading through stacks of novels) but has been pushed into mathematics because her mother wants her to accomplish something “important.” Unfortunately, she finds her facility at mathematics to be superficial too, unequal to the level of her classmates, and only earns a third. Her only distinction at school is some breezy articles written for a student magazine about what she is reading, and they lose their audience as soon as she writes more seriously about political issues.

Really, her mother seems much more eager for her to accomplish something than she is. She is somewhat shallow and eager to please, more interested in her relationships with men than in a career. She also has a tendency to pretend she knows about things that she doesn’t.

After carrying on a fairly innocent flirtation with a coworker, Max Greatorix, and having him break it off, Serena gets her big break at work. MI5 is setting up an operation called Sweet Tooth, the intention of which is to quietly fund young writers who have political beliefs sympathetic with those of the government in a subtle propaganda war against communism. Serena is told that the money will simply give the chosen writers more freedom to work, and the operation will not interfere in any way with their work.

Serena, with her voluminous reading habits but flimsy background of the series of articles she wrote in college, is asked to pronounce on the work of Tom Haley. She loves his stories and is soon given the job of recruiting him, the only fiction writer in the operation. The project seems to go swimmingly, although Tom is soon writing about themes the government would not approve. But Serena tells herself that they were not to influence Tom’s work, and anyway she is having an affair with him.

Their relationship is born in deceit, though, since Tom has no idea that his grant is coming from MI5 or that Serena is his handler. As their affair grows more serious, Serena struggles with when to tell him. Soon something else is going on that Serena doesn’t understand. As with any good spy story, you don’t always know who is lying to whom.

Since this is McEwan, we know the story will not be straightforward, and again he presents us with a great example of an unreliable narrator and a foray into metafiction. We also get a light evocation of England during a difficult period of miners’ strikes, economic and political instability, IRA bombings, and the dawning hippy and drug cultures. Although by no means a Cold War spy thriller, the novel provides plenty of plot twists.

Day 207: The Child in Time

Cover for The Child in TimeThe Child in Time is one of Ian McEwan’s earlier books, written in the mid-1980’s. It is an odd book, the themes and subplots of which all have to do with childhood and the relationships between children and their parents, but I did not come away from the novel with a coherent idea of its message.

Stephen Lewis is a writer of children’s books who has come to that vocation by accident, because an adult book he wrote was accepted as one for children. He is mourning the loss of both his small daughter and his wife. His daughter was stolen away from him in a supermarket two years before, and the marriage broke up as a result of grief.

Lewis spends his time drinking and watching television in his filthy apartment. Once a week he sits in on and daydreams through a series of government committee meetings on education, occupying a seat abandoned by his friend Charles Darke, who has retired from public life.

Although the novel focuses primarily upon Stephen’s slow recovery from depression and return to a more normal life, one of the subplots concerns his friend Darke, who with his wife offered refuge to Stephen in his worst days. Darke is a successful young entrepreneur married to a much older physicist, and the Darkes have always been Stephen’s ideal of a mature, adult couple. After running several successful businesses, Darke became a politician and then abruptly retired to the country amid rumors of a breakdown. Stephen eventually finds that his friend has been suffering from obsessions related to a childhood that was cut short by a controlling father.

Another odd plot development is a strange vision Stephen has on his way to visit his wife. He sees his parents meeting in a pub as young adults and confirms with his mother that this was an actual event from before they were married.

Although the description on the book jacket says the novel is about the importance of childhood, that specific concept seems to fit only the story of Charles Darke. As well as having themes about childhood and parenthood, the novel is about mourning and its preoccupations. Particularly perplexing is a side plot about a book on parenting secretly written by the paternalistic government and potentially planned to be fraudulently released as being a result of the committee work.

Set against a bleak England of the 1980’s, occasionally featuring beggars and soup kitchens, the novel seems oddly dreamlike at times while at other times dark and disturbing.