It’s a long-standing relationship of sorts. I’ve been reading McEwan for the best part of 10 years but I’m deciding whether to call it off.
My first foray into McEwan territory was Enduring Love. I’d never read anything quite like it. That balloon scene for starters. I was hooked from start to finish. Great book , not so great film.
Next came Amsterdam. I think this was the year the Booker registered on my radar and I freely admit to willing McEwan to win. (Hey, he was the only author on the shortlist I’d heard of!). Not ashamed to say that I thoroughly enjoyed his book at the time. Given the pillioring it has received and the literary fiction I’ve read in the decade since, I think a reread to reevaluate is in order.
I filled the 3 years between Amsterdam and Atonement with the truly terrifying 5-star Child In Time. Question: How easy is it to lose a child on the high street? Answer: Very. (In my case, I only leant over the freezer in the supermarket to reach the frozen peas, and my 3-year old was gone. It was the longest 5 minutes of my life until I found him standing by the car in the carpark. I’m unsure who was the most hysterical and I have no idea how he got there.) McEwan’s novel explores that intensity sustained for a lifetime. A truly unforgettable read and one which comes to mind everytime another case hits the press.
This brings us to Atonement. (***** Note Spoiler in the following paragraph *****)
My first pre-ordered-from-Amazon McEwan and likely the one to be remembered as a masterpiece. The one that should have won the Booker but didn’t. Could it have been that the final deceit left readers like myself reeling with the betrayal of it all? I’d invested so much emotional energy with the main trio. I really, really wanted it to turn out well in the end. But to find – irony of irony in a novel – that it was all a fiction, felt like a punch to the stomach. Still it was brilliantly executed. Another from me. I hope the film lives up to the book.
However, like the plane in chapter one of Saturday, McEwan went into descent. Allow me a little hyperbole because I really detest this offering. Less a novel than a string of set pieces tied together with a preposterous plot. OK if you want to spend time wallowing in the coziness of a 3-am guitar jam, 20 pages of a squash match, endless minutiae about brain surgery, and reams about shopping for just the right fish. Beautifully observed but so boring! What were the editors thinking? Ah, but there’s the rub, according to McEwan when he answered my question about the editing process (Glasgow Aye Write Festival 2005), there was very little. His editors-in-chief were his wife and his friend, the poet, – yes, the one who wrote the poem saves the day in the most ludicrous denouement I have ever read.
It’s a shame I feel this way about Saturday because there’s a lot of McEwan, the man in it; the sections on dementia are straight from his mother’s experience; the Perowne’s happy marriage a reflection on his relationship with his second wife. And yes, McEwan was aware that he was taking a risk in making a happy man the main character. Happiness writes white is the maxim and, unfortunately for Saturday that is true.
Seeking reassurance I turned to The Innocent – an early work set in cold war Berlin and based on real events. It’s a novel which starts innocuously enough with young wet-around-the-ears Leonard Marnham leaving mum and home to go work in West Berlin. Before he knows it, he is involved in a clandestine relationship and a secret operation. Early McEwan is macabre and the turn this novel takes, completely out of the blue, is more macabre, surreal and bizarre than you could possibly imagine. Excellent!
Which brings me finally to the Booker shortlisted On Chesil Beach. Not preordered due to the debacle with Saturday but still read within a month of publication. Not reviewed up to this point because I was hoping someone would say something that would convince me that my disappointment is a result of my own failings as a reader and not McEwan as a writer. And many perceptive comments have been made, in particular by the members of Palimpsest. Short as it is, it contains the trademark McEwan insignia. Crafted, precise prose and a life-changing (anti-)climatic moment. The problem for me is the central scene is too well-telegraphed. Once it’s done, we’re out of the honeymoon suite and the novel(la) so quickly, it’s like McEwan has rolled over and gone to sleep. Edward’s not the only one feeling cheated here! I don’t buy the premise that a wedding night disaster would herald a split so absolute that the couple wouldn’t attempt to figure out the problem. That the problem has such unoriginal roots leads me to believe that McEwan has run out of ideas.
I’m not comparing On Chesil Beach against the other shortlistees for I have yet to a single word from those. I’m comparing this effort against McEwan’s previous originality and brilliance and it simply doesn’t shine.
All of which should make On Chesil Beach‘s supporters relax and smile. For the McEwans I dislike most take the prizes; Amsterdam the 1998 Booker and Saturday, the 2005 James Tait Black Award. On that basis, let’s hear it for the 2007 winner ……