The Children Act by Ian McEwan

September 19, 2016


Ian McEwan again writes about his favorite themes: about the darkness inside us; about inexplicable desires and aversions; about the difficulty and fragility of intimacy; and about all kinds of moral dilemmas stemming from the clash between a rational and a less-than-rational/emotional/religious world view.

The most emphatic (and I’d say: over-emphasized and not very fair – but more on this later) theme this time is the one about moral/religious dilemmas. The main character, Fiona, is a well-respected high court judge, specializing in family law, and incidentally, she’s also the champion of rational thinking, constant planning, and emotion-suppression.

As it turns out from the (not really) randomly mentioned past cases she’d ruled on, Fiona’s met with parents of all kinds of religious beliefs who jeopardized the well-being and healthy development of their children due to their religion: we learn about a Muslim father who got his child out from the sinful and secular England without his ex-wife’s agreement so that he could raise the child in a proper Muslim manner; then we learn about a Jewish family where again it’s the father who takes religion more seriously, and he plans to raise his children according to the orthodox Jewish tradition, while the mother would prefer a more secular upbringing; and then we also learn about a hardcore Christian family where the parents don’t want to allow a life-saving operation on their children, claiming that whatever happens to their children, it’s the intention of God.

Based on the rulings Fiona made in these cases, it’s perhaps easy to guess what her judgment will be in the case this novel is about (so let’s say that McEwan slightly spoils himself). Because the main case here is also something similar: there’s a very ill boy coming from a Jehova’s Witnesses family, who’s a few months short of his eighteenth birthday, and who wants to reject a life-saving procedure due to his religious beliefs – while the hospital wants to fight to save his life.

Even if we might guess what Fiona’s decision will be, there’s enough tension here, as the case ends up on Fiona’s desk at a moment when she’s emotionally unstable and even a little bit sentimental – which is understandable, given the fact that her husband’s just announced that he’d like to leave now, at age 60, and take the last possible chance to experience a passionate, wild, unsettling relationship – because with Fiona, queen of cool, things aren’t exactly working anymore. Due to her emotionally vulnerable state, it’s not the case here that Fiona rules about the fate of A.H., minor, in her impersonal, remote manner. Fiona happens to be vulnerable, approachable, easy to influence, so the main character of the case becomes much more to her than just two initials – A. H. becomes a real human being – Adam Henry, an intelligent, beautiful, innocent, humorous, life-loving, poetic-romantic boy, who at the brink of his eighteenth birthday decides to accept a painful death.

I read a great, sarcastic-poetic question in a review somewhere. Would Adam become such a mythical hero if he hadn’t been such a perfect, out-of-this-world Adam – writing poems, playing the violin, and so on, but had been an average teenage boy instead, with pimples on his face, with teenage angst and cynicism galore, playing World of Warcraft all day? I guess – he most probably wouldn’t. The reason Adam can become such an attractive hero for Fiona is that she meets him at just the right moment in her otherwise pretty unemotional, reserved life, at a moment when she’s in a perfect emotional state to connect with a romantic, warm-hearted, poetic figure like Adam, who’s living his emotions and beliefs so intensely that he’s willing to die for them.

So I feel – and it’s an interesting contradiction to me – that even though the judgment in Adam’s case is exactly the judgment we could expect from the rational, careful and coolly intelligent Fiona, still, this judgment is not based on rational thinking. It’s based on emotions – which is a whole different matter.

And this is the most heart-breaking element in this novel: how the basically rational Fiona decides something based on emotions, but then she’s unwilling or unable to accept that emotional decisions can entail emotional consequences. This is brutal and unsettling – not counting with the possibility that showing emotions towards someone might just possibly awaken emotions in the other, too, and after a moment of sentimentality just retreating to the fortress of rationality, from where there’s a great and safe view of the world, where it’s possible to continue with the usual same smart-assery of the previous 30 years, and where it’s even possible to treat a marriage crisis along the ways of a game, basically saying that: “you performed an act of reconciliation today; so now it’s my turn; and so on; and slowly, slowly we’ll rebuild something and we’ll be just fine in the 10 or 20 years remaining for us on this earth.” (As you might guess, I’m not an extremely rational person/reader, and Fiona will most certainly not feature on my list of favorite literary characters or fictitious soulmates – even though I do understand what she does, because she does exactly what being herself compels her to do.)

And as regards the overt and rather imbalanced moralizing manifest in this novel I already mentioned: it’s partly my personal preference that I’m less interested in moral questions than in McEwan’s perceptions about how extremely awkward and vulnerable we, humans are in our most emotional, deepest relations (McEwan’s insight into what it’s like to be a human always and forever fills me with awe). But partly it’s not only my personal preference: the moral dilemma presented here is only a token dilemma – McEwan only takes one side seriously and it’s quite obvious that he’s extremely pissed off by any kind of (religious or other) fervor and passion. (Of course it’s quite possible that it’s not McEwan himself who’s pissed off by this but Fiona – I’m not intending to mix them up – McEwan is the writer, though, so if he really wants to deal with moral dilemmas, he might just take the trouble and present both sides with equally serious and detailed treatment.)

And it’s weird – and again: heart-breaking – for me here: how rational thinking wins. It sweeps over everything, it levels all differences, and – after a huge emotional upheaval and a couple of dangerously-real acts – it goes on to revert everything back to normal. And the romantic, the emotional, the taken, the ones who are not willing to repress their souls at all times – they can only come to a bad end.

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

June 13, 2016


The first time I read these short stories – some six years ago – I was stunned, but since then I’ve read several other works by McEwan (far from everything, though), and I realized now upon re-reading this collection that this is indeed a first book, with all the usual weaknesses, stylistic imbalances and the occasional awkwardness of first books. (Still, I’d be happy to write such a weak first book as this.)

McEwan’s usual themes are already present here: he writes about the unknown in us and in the others, about the impossibility of growing up, about unexpected violence, and about the dark side of love, sex, and intimacy – but he writes about all this with a lot more subtlety and eloquence in his later books. Here I sometimes feel that his writing is too direct, too coarse – even spoon-feeding.

For example: the main character in one of the stories was pampered by his mother to an unhealthy degree throughout his childhood, and it seems that this character half-consciously wishes to return to the womb. Then one day he gets locked inside a dark and warm place, where he has quite a pleasant time, and from that moment on, his desire to get back to the womb gets even more pronounced. Oh well – this is certainly not the most subtly symbolic piece of writing I’ve ever encountered.

What is already subtle and amazing here though is the way McEwan builds the layers of words, moods and feelings on one another. What I mean is that even though the stories all stand on their own, if you read them one after the other, their individual effects slowly add up, due to the fact that certain themes and motives come up again and again.

For example, several stories feature rivers, channels, and boats of some kind, and it feels to me as if the abandoned boat that starts its slow journey towards the corrupt and violent London at the end of one of the stories were the same as the boat that’s mentioned by another character in another story when he invites an innocent girl for a walk by the channel. In the end it doesn’t matter that the two boats are different – the connection between the two riversides is made, and this way a connection is made between the characters of the two stories, too. Between characters who are innocent, corrupt, lonely, curious, perverted to different degrees – but it’s not as if there was a strict line between innocence and corruption, curiosity and perversion in these stories. It seems as if everything were already present inside everyone, only waiting for a chance to spring to the surface.

Besides riversides and boats, another recurring motif here is role-playing and being forced into unwanted roles, in all kinds of ages and situations: children play adult roles; adults want to force children around them into either the role of the eternal child, or into the role of the miniature adult. And then there’s role-playing onstage (where it’s perverted to do something for real when you’re only supposed to act – to pretend doing it), and at home (where the overly theatrical gestures get oppressive after a while, as they blur the line between acting and reality). This is a rich and intriguing theme, and McEwan examines it from so many aspects in these eight stories that after a while I’m almost scared to do anything for fear that it would turn out to be only acting, turn out to be something that leads to horrible consequences.

So yes – this is a good, eerie, frightening collection – the only thing that bothers me is really only the occasional coarseness.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

October 1, 2012

Enduring Love is the most human and most approachable novel by Ian McEwan I’ve read so far. The opening scene of the novel is quite unique: a happily married couple, Joe and Clarissa are having a picnic somewhere in the lovely English countryside when suddenly a hot air balloon gets out of control and everybody nearby, including Joe and Clarissa comes rushing to help the balloon owner. One of the helpers, John Logan, meets his death in the attempt to help, and another person, the young, disturbed Jed Parry has a sudden crush on Joe and starts harassing him after the accident with his irrational love which is fueled by religious fever.

Despite the surrealistic beginning, the human and emotional side of the story is quite easy to imagine and believe: after the accident, Joe tries hard to deal with his memories of the tragedy and also attempts to relieve himself of the sense of responsibility. Meanwhile, his everyday life and marriage are gradually overshadowed by Jed’s continuous presence: the young man keeps calling him, sends him love letters, blocks his way when he wants to leave his apartment, follows him around and finally even threatens his life. As a consequence, the so far harmonic relationship of Joe and Clarissa quickly begins to fall apart: at the beginning of his ordeal Joe does not tell Clarissa about Jed’s practices, and when finally he confides in his wife, it’s too late – Clarissa already has her doubts and she concludes that actually it is not Jed but Joe who has something wrong with him.

The way McEwan presents the story is highly dramatic and intriguing: the novel is full of suspense and ominous foreshadowing, and these continuously made me feel that I had to read just one more chapter. One of the reviews quoted on the back cover of my copy says that it counts as irresponsible behavior to start the novel in the evening if you plan to get any sleep that night. Well, this is a bit of an exaggeration: it is just possible to put down the novel, but it is certain that it will keep bugging you somewhere in the back of your mind until you pick it up again.

Another thing I liked immensely about the novel is the narrative technique it employs. This may be something of a perversion, but I am a huge sucker for novels with unusual narrative methods and/or stories which are told from the points of view of more than one narrator, and Enduring Love was a treat for me in this respect. Although the story is mostly told from Joe’s perspective, there is a chapter in which Joe tries to enter Clarissa’s mind and recounts the events the way she must experience them, and at some points the reader is also presented with some love letters Jed addresses to Joe, without any commentary whatsoever.

The narration is all the more interesting as Joe and Clarissa read the same events quite differently. Joe started out as a promising scientist, then turned into the successful author of popular scientific articles and books; Clarissa, on the other hand, is a prominent scholar, specializing in the life and poetry of John Keats – and their work and interests are reflected in the way they interpret the developments in their lives. Joe, true to his nature, tries to explain everything, collects facts and evidence, and finds out that Jed’s manic behavior is caused by a medical condition. At the same time Clarissa approaches Jed and his actions in an emotional way and is willing to get to know him better, so that she might be able to understand his personality and motivations.

Still, Joe remains the main narrator and interpreter of the novel, and his rational approach seems to be confirmed by the appendix: it contains some medical opinions and case studies relating to Jed’s condition, and it also provides an objective account of how Joe and Clarissa overcame the crisis caused by Jed. The content and tone of the appendix seems to correspond to Joe’s reading of the events, and this gives the impression that finally Joe has the last say in the story and that reason wins over feeling.

Finally it’s interesting to reflect a bit on the title – what counts as enduring love? Naturally, Jed’s fanatic adoration is a specimen of enduring love, as we learn from the appendix that this type of love does not relent as time passes, and we can also read one of Jed’s letters, written three years after the main events, which displays the same intense emotions as those at the beginning of his “relationship” with Joe. Besides this, however, Joe’s and Clarissa’s love is also enduring, all the more so because it survives the crisis caused by Jed and perhaps it even grows stronger as a consequence. And the love between the minor characters John (the victim of the ballooning accident) and his widow, Jean is also enduring, as even though Jean believes that John cheated on her with one of his students, it finally turns out that John was faithful to her throughout their marriage and their love was never corrupted.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

November 21, 2011

I like the work of Ian McEwan. I wouldn’t be happy to read two of his books in close succession, and fortunately no-one compels me to do so, so I always read his novels after waiting a sufficient time, when I feel that I’m ready again for the extraordinary experience his work usually provides me with. The Comfort of Strangers had also been sitting on my desk for a couple of months before I mustered the necessary courage which is needed for reading McEwan.

I know it’s not the size of a book that counts, however, in the beginning I was deceived and disappointed by the fact that The Comfort of Strangers only runs to 100 pages, so I was expecting a simple, perhaps rather shallow story without too much soul-dissection, one I would read in two hours and then forget about in a week. I was wrong. As soon as I started reading the novel, I realized that this is not a text that can or should be read quickly. McEwan demands the reader’s attention but he gives much pleasure in return, and he also proves that his short novel can contain as much drama, suspense, tragedy and gloomy poetry as any thousand-page book.

The novel tells the story of the English couple, Colin and Mary, who spend their holiday in an unnamed city (apparently it’s Venice). Their time passes monotonously until one evening, when, while walking through the city late at night looking for a place to eat, they bump into Robert, a rather aggressive, overwhelmingly cordial local man who invites the couple first to a smoky bar, and then next day to his own apartment. Here they meet Robert’s disabled wife, Caroline, who can hardly walk because of the constant pain in her back. The rest of the novel analyzes the special relationships which exist among these four people, but I would rather not say any more of the story, as every further detail might diminish the morbid, perverted delight offered by the book.

Because despite all its brutality and harshness, The Comfort of Strangers is a beautiful text. It’s written in such a stunning, poetic and seductive language that I often found myself reading a sentence three or four times before moving on, and I also turned back the pages several times to read through a particularly rich paragraph again. In this fascinating, cutting and detached language McEwan tells us quite a lot about the relationship of men and women, alienation, passion, desire and fear, and what he says here is never reassuring and often unsettling.

The atmosphere of the novel, suggested by the story and the language itself, is much enhanced by the city where the events take place. Although it is not stated explicitly, several signs imply that the story is set in Venice: we read about channels and bridges, the characters move about in boats and the cemetery island can also be vaguely seen on the horizon – and Venice is not the city of light, airy stories: just think of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion or Daphne Du Maurier’s story, Don’t Look Now. These stories came to my mind immediately when reading The Comfort of Strangers, and the comparisons didn’t make my heart any easier.

Apart from the style, the language and the setting, the title of the novel is also worth contemplating. I think it’s beautiful and very expressive. To be comfortable among strangers – it almost sounds like an oxymoron, and still: Colin and Mary feel at home in the strange city, in the company of Robert and Caroline, and this is the setting where they find the means of rekindling their rather cold relationship which is more of a friendship now than a love affair. The same holds true for Robert and Caroline who can gratify their passions and sexual desires under the strange gaze and presence of Colin and Mary.

On the whole, this is a stunning and rich novel which also made me reflect on myself and the world. And this is exactly what I expect from a book.