Ian McEwan came to this reader’s attention when his 1998 novel Amsterdam won the Booker Prize. He subsequently spoke of that novel as having loosened him from “certain intellectual inhibitions” in the service of an art “more irresponsible and free.” A somewhat odd claim, at least for the many readers who found Amsterdam, for all its nimble comic grotesquerie (two estranged friends contrive to bring about their mutual assisted suicide), to be inferior to its successor, the more ambitious and “human” Atonement, McEwan’s 2001 family saga covering seven decades of life in twentieth-century England. At any rate, few would dispute that the novels after Amsterdam are written out of a sense of life emanating from a wider, more encompassing view than that of their predecessors—two books of short stories and four novels, of which The Child in Time (1987) is perhaps the most notable. The deepening of both fictional techniques and human feelings in McEwan’s more recent books bolsters the case for viewing him as the premier novelist writing in English today.
These recent novels disclose large differences in narrative technique, from the dispassionate, rather toneless recounting of a wedding-night disaster (On Chesil Beach, 2007) to the highly inflected, sarcastic, self-exculpatory voice of the Nabokovian Solar (2011). But in all of them we encounter sentences, even paragraphs, that seem to be spoken by someone whom we must call Ian Mc-Ewan. An instance in Saturday (2005): the exemplary neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is deeply moved as he hears his son’s performance of a pop song—and proceeds to describe its technical construction with a musicologist’s flare:
Theo’s guitar starts out alone with a languorous two-bar turnaround, a simple descending line from the fifth fret, tumbling into a thick chord which oozes into a second and remains hanging there, an unresolved fading seventh; then, with a sharp kick and roll on the tom, and five stealthy, rising notes from the bass, the blues begins.
After the piece ends, Perowne is moved to a large statement about music:
There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they’ve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself.
Pretty good for a medical man, no? Yet rather than criticize McEwan for failure to keep within the lines of his protagonist’s doubtless limited perceptions, we might admire this expansion into authorial largeness, so gracious and poised (like the music itself) that we scarcely notice any lack of fit.
Saturday, my favorite of McEwan’s books, is notable for its evocation of the streets and traffic of London and its precise description of hospital rounds in a conscientious surgeon’s life; among its features are a vividly rendered squash game and Perowne’s excursion from London to visit his demented mother in a nursing home—the mother’s dissociated sentences acutely captured by McEwan. Some have balked at the novel’s crucial scene, when Perowne’s daughter Daisy, about to publish her first book of poetry, is ordered by Baxter (a thug who has invaded their home) to strip naked and read one of her poems, but instead reads Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” to the astonishment and admiration of Baxter. Admittedly this is not the realism McEwan can be so adept at, but rather a fiction writer’s godlike effort to make a marvelous thing happen; still, the inventiveness of its happening in this novelist’s prose makes it too shocking and horribly engaging simply to be deplored as untrue to life. And though Saturday is not an especially humorous book, it’s full of those “judicious and instructive observations” that Samuel Johnson recommended in Hamlet. There are more of such observations in McEwan’s work generally than has perhaps been recognized.
Saturday was followed by McEwan’s shortest novel, On Chesil Beach, a work severe in its deliberately “objective” presentation of early marital disaster. Then came two playful and mostly comic works: Solar (2011), an episodic treatment of the Nobel physicist and antihero, Michael Beard, whose ignominious travails include having his penis frozen to the zip of his snowmobile suit during an Arctic visit; and Sweet Tooth (2012), a complicated historical caper set in 1970s England, a spy or mock-spy story including real people who inhabited the London literary scene back then. Like Atonement, it has a trick ending in a postmodernist vein.
Parents choosing a school for their children—an innocent, important, humdrum, private affair which a lethal blend of bitter division and too much money had transmuted into a monstrous clerical task, into box files of documents, so numerous and heavy they were hauled to court on trolleys, into hours of educated wrangling, procedural hearings, deferred decisions, the whole circus rising, but so slowly, through the judicial hierarchy like a lopsided, ill-tethered hot-air balloon.
Such passages rise like the hot-air balloon from the spectacular opening of McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997). What’s impressive here, and of a piece throughout the book, is the rhetorical, metaphorical, syntactical net of the writing, the medium through which the story is told. It’s no surprise that McEwan admires John Updike’s work (he wrote a lovely tribute after Updike died); they share, alongside a habit of thoroughly researching their novels, a pleasure in the figurations of narrative weaving.
The Children Act moves briskly. Its main plot involves Adam, a seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who will not accept a life-saving blood transfusion. Together with a social worker, Fiona visits the hospital on London’s South Bank where the boy is being kept. During the visit Adam reveals his love of poetry and music; he reads one of his poems to Fiona and demonstrates some beginning steps he has taken on the violin. Impressed, she sings, to his halting violin accompaniment, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of Yeats’s early poem, “Down by the Salley Gardens” (“In a field by the river, my love and I did stand”). Back in court, Fiona delivers a judgment in accord with the Children Act of 1989 and its stipulation that “The child’s welfare shall be the court’s primary consideration.” And so, against the wishes of the boy’s parents—and his own dutiful plan to follow the tenets of their faith—the hospital is permitted to give him the transfusion. The remainder of the novel takes up the boy’s recovery, his subsequent loss of religious faith, and his growing fixation on the judge (“My Lady,” he likes to call her). In a parallel and less strongly rendered development, Jack returns to the nest to work things out, slowly, with his wife.
In making Adam so attractive (he’s a favorite of the nurses, his face “beautiful” even in the shadow of death), McEwan plays a risky game—shining a light of admiration on the boy’s efforts with the violin, letting him produce poetry that Fiona praises as possessing “a touch, a very small touch of poetic genius.” A sardonic reviewer, chiding the novel for this sentimental picture of a beautiful youth, expressed the mischievous wish that McEwan had instead given Adam a bad case of acne and an addiction to violent computer games. One takes the point, yet the care and intelligence with which the novel lays out the exchanges between judge and boy in the hospital room are undeniably strong, and Adam’s move away from his initial challenging sarcasm to a growing love of Fiona is convincingly done. The eventual outcome is an instance of something terrible happening with no one to blame (in Robert Frost’s homemade definition of tragedy), even though Fiona deeply blames herself.
Though I have said nothing about the law briefs and cases Fiona is involved in, they are part of the thickly planned detail of a believable professional career. What struck me as even more pleasurable is a concert at Wigmore Hall, given for various judicial types, in which Fiona accompanies on the piano a fellow barrister, a tenor. Music has asserted itself tellingly in earlier McEwan novels: for example, the attempt by Clive Linley, the composer in Amsterdam, to write an appropriate finish to his composition; or, in Chesil Beach, the heroine listening to string quartet concerts at (again) Wigmore Hall; or the aforementioned performance of the pop song in Saturday. In The Children Act the concert begins with the tenor and Fiona performing Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits D’Été, whose opening song is “Villanelle”:
Mark nodded at her to show he was ready, and immediately her fingers were summoning from the colossal instrument the gently rocking chords and her mind seemed to follow behind.... His voice sounded warmer in her ears, bang on the note, free of the tuneless vibrato he sometimes deployed, free to search out all the delight in Berlioz’s setting of the “Villanelle,” and then, later, in the “Lament” all the sorrow of the steeply falling line, “Ah! Sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!” Her own playing looked after itself.
That the final number of the concert, Britten’s “Down by the Salley Gardens” (wouldn’t you guess it!), will elicit a tragic event makes the confident assurance of the beginning “Villanelle”—and the assurance in McEwan’s writing—all the more impressive.
It’s possible that my pleasure in this scene has much to do with my being a pianist familiar with the Berlioz songs, and that other readers will feel less intimately connected. In any case there’s no denying that McEwan’s own relation to music is a strong one. Responding to an interviewer who asked how much music influenced his writings, the novelist admitted to taking great pleasure in musicians and composers. “Perhaps more than any other art form,” he declared, “music consistently delivers satisfaction and formal perfection that are only ever found in the best poetry. Novels, and even great novels, are never perfect all the way through—Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, and certainly Ulysses have their longueurs. The Goldberg Variations do not.”
If like most novels, The Children Act has imperfections, it should come as no surprise, but also should be set against the rich detail that permeates the book. “Details are the giant’s fingers,” wrote Updike in one of his early stories. It is in the details where McEwan’s greatest strength is to be found.