The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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I bought this book quite randomly, except, not really – I liked the title, the topic, and the fact that it’s set in New York, which is my favorite mythical city – and it turned out to be a good book. The Lonely City contains a bit of everything: there are autobiographical ruminations about loneliness, there’s a bit of art history, politics, psychology, a bit about the history of New York and so on.

The book grew out of Olivia Laing’s experiences when, in her mid-thirties, she moved to New York to be together with a man, except it turned out that the man didn’t want to be with her after all, which left Laing all alone – alone in more than one sense: in a strange city (and New York at that, the most archetypal alienated and alienating city), with the pain of a fresh breakup, without close friends.

What do you do in a situation like this? You drag yourself out to the street when you really must, but then you run back home as fast as you can, and then spend most of your time lying around in your bed, watching videos on YouTube, and searching online for the illusion of human warmth, without accepting the dangers inherent in real human contact.

Laing does exactly this, but fortunately her brain is still working, so in her case binge-watching videos, wasting time online, and thinking about her poisonous and stinking loneliness leads somewhere: to this book. Laing, just for something to do, starts to research loneliness, looks into the psychology of loneliness, and examines how this is a state/feeling that’s universal and yet weirdly impossible to share with others. Then she moves on to the loneliness of cities, then to artists who lived and worked in big and lonely cities and who were also themselves lonely and/or whose main artistic theme was loneliness.

The book is structured in the way that at the beginning of each chapter, Laing talks a bit about the stages of her own loneliness, and then she jumps into the life and art of one of her heroes (David Wojnarovicz, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger), constructs the biographies of their loneliness, and analyzes their work from the perspective of how they expressed or diminished the eternal loneliness of the given artist.

And then there are her digressions, of course. She talks about the AIDS epidemic and how inhumanly society treated those diagnosed with the illness when it first appeared; about sexual and other kinds of transgressions, about enlarging and changing the self; about abnormality and the inability to fit in; about the old and wild and dangerous New York, a city that despite its dangers still provided more opportunity for human contact than contemporary New York; about everything becoming uniform; about online relationships and the disappearance of privacy in this here age.

Even though she doesn’t get too deep into any of these topics (there are way too many topics here for that) and even though I didn’t have any major epiphanies while reading her thoughts about loneliness (maybe, just maybe, I have some experiences of my own with it, just like – probably – most everyone), Laing still inspired me and she made me want to read a whole lot of other books. For example, out of the four artists whose names I so casually dropped two paragraphs back, I only knew Andy Warhol’s name so far, but even knowing his name and some of his work, I had no idea about his loneliness, and as for the other three artists (and lots of others mentioned here), I’ve never heard about them before – and it was great to hear about them because their work seems very exciting, and anyway, everyone’s more interesting and more complex if you look closer. (For example, Valerie Solanas did other things in her life, too, didn’t just shoot Andy Warhol.)

And the gentle ambiguity and irony surrounding the „art of loneliness” in the title is beautiful. Being lonely is not an art – but creating art out of loneliness is an art, and that art might help others feels a little bit less lonely.

I must add, though, that Laing’s style irritates me from time to time: it’s a bit too didactic, a bit too gushingly nostalgic (I bet it was awesome when in the 1970s Times Square was the center of porn and prostitution, and I bet it was just great when during this same era everyone could go and pick up someone for some casual intimacy among the ruins of one of New York’s old ports, so at least the lonely and the dispossessed could find some human interaction, and so on – but I feel it’s a bit of a stretch to treat this era as a wonderful golden age), and a bit too pessimistic (or perhaps I’m the one who’s too optimistic – anyway, I don’t think everything’s becoming uniform, and I do think that in many places it’s easier today to be an outsider, a non-model citizen, or a person with „non-traditional” sexual preferences than it used to be in that supposedly golden age of the 70s that Laing describes with such tearful nostalgia).

And even though her biographies about others are very human, emotional, and often truly touching, the way she talks about her own experience of loneliness just isn’t that interesting. Seriously, who hasn’t yet had the experience of moving to another city because of a love interest that didn’t work out well? True, I haven’t, still, I know the feeling, and Laing’s loneliness in the face of this event (as much as she can or wants to express it) is not a bit more interesting or a bit more unique than the loneliness I also knew at some points of my life.

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The Information by Martin Amis

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In my younger and more smart-assy years I used to like Martin Amis a lot, and as far as I remember, I enjoyed this novel very much ten years ago. I thought I’d enjoy it this time, too – the first sentences in any case were so good that I didn’t even continue reading that night because I was just swooning with pleasure.

„Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams.”

This here is perfection, enough to keep me happy for a night.

But despite the amazing first sentences, in the end I found this novel dead boring and irritating – perhaps because I’m not young and I’m not a smartass anymore. Oh, wait – I still am, so perhaps the real reason is that I now find this particular type of smartassery boring and irritating: this oh-so-sophistaced, forced-ironic, over-stylized type of smartassery makes me cringe now. (Except, of course, when I myself am doing it.)

Smartassery fits the novel, though, because The Information is very literary – in the sense that it’s main topic is literature (which is, as everyone knows, dying). More precisely: the main topics are writers, writing, publishing, and the question of what you can write about.

For example, the writers in the novel (or maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s – the fictional self of – Martin Amis, because, as usual, he wrote himself into this novel, so that he can be witty and smart at the reader from inside the book) once talk about how throughout the history of literature, heroes progressively got smaller and more and more insignificant. In ancient times, the heroes were gods and demigods, later literature was all about kings, knights, and bishops, still later about the man of the street, and still later about the people from society’s underbelly. Consequently, all that remains now for literature is to talk about writers and literature, but this is no solution – you cannot write metafiction until the end of eternity. (Fortunately.)

Anyway, metafiction was still in full swing for Martin Amis in 1995, so this novel is about two writers. One of them reinvents literature, or rather, he returns to a weird kind of ancient simplicity that probably never existed in the first place. He writes a couple of dumb, childish utopias that lack any drama, feeling, or life, and for some reason he ends up wildly successful. The other writer, in the meanwhile, goes to the other extreme: he writes unreadable literature, the kind that causes physical pain, and his latest novel (titled Untitled) is famous for its ability to bring on acute migraine, nosebleed, or any other illness after three or four pages. No wonder he doesn’t become successful.

These writers, by the way, are old friends, the kind who actually hate each other, and they both try to humiliate and destroy the other. While they are engaged in their petty little literary wars, the world out there is getting smaller and smaller and getting closer and closer to its end, and we are constantly reminded that compared to the stars and galaxies, we are all totally insignificant, with all our literary or other ambitions and successes and failures.

This is partly entertaining because Amis isn’t only a smartass – he’s really smart, too, and his style is admirably sarcastic, still – it’s boring, partly because Amis himself already covered the same things in roughly the same manner in London Fields, and partly because literature – for me – is more interesting when it deals with something else besides itself.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

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There are all kinds of layers and themes to this novel. It deals, for example, with the difficulties of immigration and integration (turns out that moving to a new country is especially difficult if you have a very different color, religion, and cultural background than the majority of people living there); with the family ties and social background that can determine what you do and what you can do with your life; and then with a bit of contemporary history, and Muslim and non-Muslim tensions (9/11, demonstrations and anti-demonstrations).

I think the story-line that deals with history and with the tensions of society is the weakest one in the novel. I noticed already a few years back, when I was reading In the Kitchen, that Monica Ali is much better when she concentrates on individual lives and expresses big and important ideas through those individual lives than when she writes about intangible, faceless organizations, like in this novel – all I can make of this Muslim and non-Muslim story-line here is that a group called Tigers and another group wage a pamphlet-war in the neighborhood and organize who-knows-what-kind-of demonstrations and marches, with a pretty much unknown goal in mind.

But all this is just an aside, because what made me endlessly intrigued here was the story of the novel’s protagonist. Reading her story often reminded me of Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and it made me realize that not much has changed in the past 100 years.

The protagonist is Nazneen, a village girl from Bangladesh, who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man from Bangladesh living in London. Nazneen is a good and obedient daughter with a strong desire to do her duty, and with an equally strong belief that everything is controlled by Allah/Fate, so everything that was meant to happen will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

There’s an interesting contrast between Nazneen and her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina, who decides to take her fate into her own hands (which leads to catastrophic results, by the way, as we learn from the letters the eternally absent Hasina sends to her sister). Hasina, who violently rejects the mentality that we’re here on this earth to stoically withstand the amount of suffering that was destined for us, leads an entirely different kind of life than Nazneen, but her successes and failures don’t indicate that, after all, Nazneen’s road was the better choice. And they don’t indicate, either, that Hasina’s road was better. (Fortunately, there’s very little moralizing in this novel.)

The story is basically about how the ever-obedient Nazneen very slowly gains her independence and learns (and accepts the responsibility) to lead her own life. Nazneen’s slowly awakening desire for independence and her first small independent actions are very natural, there’s no big breakthrough or anything dramatic here. Nazneen isn’t exactly a feminist, her husband is not an abusive brute from whom she is forced to run away, and if we only look at the surface, her life in London isn’t bad at all – so theoretically, there’s no reason for her to rebel. And yet – there’s a curiosity in her, and a small (and then bigger and bigger) desire to see what she can do on her own. Which is wonderful and very human.

And the way Monica Ali describes Nazneen’s awakening right from the beginning is very subtle. For example, once Nazneen goes for a walk in big and sinful London, she gets lost, she has to pee, and anyway, she’s just a Muslim woman who isn’t even supposed to walk about on her own – so of course, Nazneen panics, but then she manages to solve the difficult situation, she’s proud, and she’d like to share her moment of triumph with someone. Or later on, she gradually discovers her body and she even entertains wild thoughts about shaving her legs. And still later, she becomes bold enough to open her mouth and say what she wants.

And this whole story of awakening is drawn very sensitively and gently – and it doesn’t for a moment seem that there’s a fixed end to it.

And just by the way: this is a very funny novel, too, with a bunch of great characters who look like caricatures yet remain alive, authentic and understandable, and it’s also a novel with a lot of smells and colors, which make me want to walk down on Brick Lane.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster

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I’m hardly an expert when it comes to Forster’s works – I’d only read A Room With a View earlier, but at least I’d read that countless times – and this lack of expertise might be the reason this novel was a big surprise to me.

First of all: I’m always intrigued to see how writers develop, how they enlarge upon their main themes and how they improve their favorite motifs from one book to the next. (This isn’t the main point here, so I’m not going into details now, but my theory is that in fact, everyone has only two or three really interesting things to say in their life – but it can take a good while until someone finds the best possible form, genre or mode of expression for that two or three amazing thoughts. And I like to read the experimental, voice-finding pieces of someone’s life work, too, not only the masterpieces.)

And it was interesting to compare this novel with A Room With a View (I don’t mean any kind of deep and involved parallel reading – I only mean that I’ve read A Room With a View so many times that I almost know it by heart), and to encounter a huge number of motifs and themes Forster must have found so irresistible and enchanting that he quickly put them not just into one novel, but two. Just a couple of examples: the charm and dramatic and dramatizing power of Italy; the view (yes!) you can enjoy from the balconies of Italian houses and from the walls of Italian towns, the view that’s more than enough to completely change someone’s direction in life; the purple flowers blooming all over the Italian hillsides every spring; little babies (real or otherwise); and so on. And further, it’s interesting how the same motifs can have such a different effect in different novels.

The reason this novel surprised me is because I had no idea Forster’s writing could be so dark. (I had no idea that A Room With a View is supposed to be his lightest novel, and all the others are way darker.)

And I didn’t suspect anything at first – this novel, too, starts out lightly enough: with two young English ladies embarking on the Big Italian Adventure, which around 1900 wasn’t supposed to involve getting romantically entangled with attractive Mediterranean demigods – but as it is, exactly this happens here, while all the relatives and neighbors back in England watch with horror as the events unfold, and then decide to send a rescue team to save the hapless ladies from the misfortune – a misfortune they got into out of their own free will. (Of course, Italy is attractive only as long as the English tourist can observe and admire it from behind the safe wall of the Baedeker. The approved plans of „learning” Italy never involve any real, non-touristy interactions with the locals, and if any such interaction occurs, Italy immediately becomes a barbaric country whose inhabitants all harbor evil plots to rid the innocent English ladies and gentlemen of their money and good morals.)

Anyway, up until this point, the novel is lighthearted and funny enough – then the mood turns gradually darker, and I don’t even realize how we suddenly get to topics such as gender equality; the cultural differences between countries, and how these differences might be insurmountable; and the possibly mortally dangerous English stiffness, cold blood, and hysterical regularity. To illustrate these points, Forster makes rather brutal things happen to his characters, and he doesn’t stop at being just nicely ironic and gently sarcastic. (He does these, too, of course – and with such wit and charm that he immediately climbs right next to Jane Austen on my fictitious list of top English authors who can make the most devastating remarks while maintaining a perfectly innocent face.)

I don’t mind, by the way, that this novel is pretty sombre. What I do mind a bit is that Forster doesn’t always seem to be in control, and it feels as if he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted with his characters and what road he wanted them to take. (Additionally, it seems he wasn’t sure what the characters want from each other, either.) But perhaps this is again the effect of Italy – that someone who used to be a moderately boring, moderately annoying, not particularly attractive neighbor in the good-natured world of rural England magically becomes a goddess in Italy. It’s possible, I guess – it’s only that Forster doesn’t manage to convince me how these things occur.

(If I ever found myself in Monteriano, though, I’d make sure to look for the places mentioned in the novel because even if Forster seems somewhat uncertain about his characters, he is absolutely sure about the magic of Monteriano. It’s a pity that Monteriano probably doesn’t exist.)

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

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This is the most disagreeable coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite genre – for some unfathomable reason I’m still deeply interested in what it’s like to grow up, and of course I’m aware that some of the main themes of growing up are sex and our own wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind snowflake personalities which we are positively dying to exhibit to someone, but the protagonist of this novel is so disgustingly self- and sex-centered that my usual powers of empathy don’t seem to work here.

Charles, the 19-year-old protagonist makes it his goal in life to have sex with an older woman before he turns 20. The older woman in question is only about a month older than him, but so be it. Charles develops a crush on Rachel and he’s determined to get her. He employs quite a nerdy method for this end, by the way – he wants to win the heart of his lady with quotes from Blake’s poetry, with whole conversations and mini-presentations prepared before their encounters, and with books, vinyls and magazines arranged in his room in masterly and artful disarray that’s supposed to indicate how irresistible and tasteful he is.

Does he succeed? I won’t go into that. In any case, during his big Rachel-siege, Charles learns a lot not just about Rachel but about himself, too, and – supposedly – he gets somewhat wiser by the end.

Is this a good novel? On the one hand, it’s absolutely infuriating, because this story is exclusively about how Charles feels, what happens to him, and how he’s unable to accept the humanity of anyone else besides himself. I’m not sure how such things work now among teens, but I think/hope this must have changed since the 1970s when the novel is set. Anyway, this here is still an era where contraception is something only the girl is supposed to worry about, where it’s still unmanly and embarrassing for a guy to buy and use a condom, and where it’s cause for a major relationship crisis if the male finds out that girls also poop. (Naturally, girls don’t crap or take a shit – but according to Charles’ world view, they shouldn’t even poop.) And the reason I’m only talking about the bodily aspects of a relationship is because there’s no other aspect mentioned here in this novel. As regards the mind and personality of Rachel (or anyone else), the closer we come to that is Charles indicating that the girl probably doesn’t have a personality, and even if she does, it’s surely not very interesting.

On the other hand, though – if I look at this novel from a literary perspective, it’s not bad at all. I believe Amis when he says that this is one kind of life as a teenager: this nightmare of hormones, this huge desire to fit in, this posh-English elitism, this machismo, this constant smart-assery, this insensitivity to every other human, which means that even while you’re trying to win your girl, the only thing that matters to you is how you look in the other’s eyes, while not giving the least shit about how the other person is. So yes – it’s written convincingly.

And I understand and feel that this novel is satirical. Charles wasn’t meant to be a likeable teenager. (Which is a pretty big feat, by the way – creating a teenage character I hate. I like basically every teenage character in the history of teenage novels, starting, naturally, from Holden Caulfield right up to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

But even if  it’s a satire, and even if it’s written decently, it’s still a hateful novel for me. It’s not entertaining, not satirical enough to make me forget about its detestable sexism.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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I used to have a period long ago when I read lots of books by Agatha Christie. I wasn’t methodical, I didn’t have a plan, and altogether I read perhaps a third of her books. And this novel is one I keep returning to. I’ve read it three or four times already, and even though I know all the twists by heart, it’s enough for me to read the little poem on the first page, which serves as an inspiration for the murderer when he plans his murders, and I immediately have the shivers running down my spine. (I’m not intending to name the murderer, but his identity might be guessed from the following paragraphs.)

As for the story – at the beginning of the novel, ten guests arrive on a small island that’s just off the coast of England but inaccessible in bad weather. One guest dies on the first evening, and by the next morning, the housekeeper’s wife is also dead. No wonder then that a panicky mood soon sets in among the remaining guests as the suspicion arises that there’s probably a killer hiding somewhere on the island. They soon establish that there’s nobody else on the island except for the guests, so the only important question remains: who among the eight is the murderer, and how can he be stopped before he goes on to kill everyone?

Reading And Then There Were None for the first time was a stunning, deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experience for me, and this hasn’t changed much during the subsequent re-readings. This novel is so ominous and so claustrophobic that it doesn’t matter that I learn the truth in the end (or that I already know the truth because I remember it from my previous readings), because by that time I’m already well under its effect. Finishing this novel is not like finishing any other mystery story: here I don’t feel the comfort and satisfaction I usually feel, and I cannot sit back and say: well, this was an interesting murder mystery, brilliantly solved by a smart detective while I had some good fun. Instead, I feel as if I finished a deep psychological drama of several hundred pages, something that would occupy my mind for several days to come, something I’d never be able to completely forget.

In this novel Christie managed to do something that is quite unusual in a murder mystery and something that sets this novel apart from her own works, too. This is the only murder mystery (not only by Christie but in general) I’ve read more than once in my life, so it’s definitely more than a moderately engaging story that’s good for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

What makes it special, then? First, that it deals with the question of sin much more deeply, analytically and philosophically than most crime stories. The specific murders don’t even matter that much here – what matters is the philosophy of the murderer, the philosophy that makes him want to kill and see to it that the truth prevails. This philosophy here often reminds me of Crime and Punishment without the long psychological analyses – and in fact, these analyses aren’t even missing here, they are hidden, in embryonic form, in the epilogue.

Another thing that makes this novel special to me is its atmosphere. I’m too lazy to look for specific examples, but the way Christie depicts the mounting tension, the unbearable claustrophobia, and the feelings of rising doubt, terror, and animosity is deeply terrifying.

And one more thing which I didn’t notice at first, but which became obvious through subsequent re-readings: this is a deeply ironic novel. It makes for some good (and comparatively light) fun in this dark novel to note how often and in how many different ways the murderer claims that the culprit can only be a dangerous maniac, while no-one has a clue that he’s talking about himself. I’m grateful for this irony here – even with that, this novel is terrifying, and I wouldn’t even like to imagine how it would be without it.

Cityboy by Geraint Anderson

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Geraint Anderson worked in London’s financial district, the City for several years, and when he had had enough of that, he first wrote a series of anonymous articles for a magazine and then wrote this book to air the dirty laundry of the City.

This doesn’t sound half bad, however, Geraint Anderson isn’t exactly a master of truth-exposing, eye-opening writing, and he isn’t a present-day Dostoyevsky, either, someone capable of accessing all the hidden corners of the human heart and revealing just what kind of moral-killing and soul-crushing practices go on in the world. Anderson is a rather neutral, nothing-special writer – his writing lacks life and sparkle, he’s extremely repetitive, and his humor is forced and bland most of the time.

The subtitle – Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile – refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and indeed, Cityboy’s main character (Anderson himself) does drugs almost as enthusiastically and is paranoid almost to the same extent as Raoul Duke (or Hunter S. Thompson), but the similarities end here because – as opposed to Thompson – Anderson doesn’t possess a remarkable sense of humor or a truly feverish and insane imagination, moreover, he’s not as talented a writer as to be able to give sufficient shape to the creations of his ordinary imagination or his paranoid visions.

So as regards the debauchery, drug-doing, orgies and general assholery of the protagonist’s life as Cityboy – this story-line is painfully dull. Anderson, for example, relates how absolutely awful and embarrassing it was when he – totally shitfaced and wasted – ran into his future boss who was accompanying his daughter to the Glastonbury Festival, and yes: I can imagine that meeting your boss when you’re shitfaced can be quite awful and embarrassing, but it’s sure as hell that Anderson isn’t able to make me feel how and why this was awful for him. That’s it for the hard-partying stock-broker story-line then.

The other main story-line is the truth-exposing and soul-searching one. It’s about the dark deeds of banks, stock exchanges, and all kinds of other institutions in the money business; and about how the once normal people who work in this business all become amoral, inhuman, extremely competitive zombies, working 70 hours a week, equally obsessed with making and wasting money. Oh well – yes, I believe it can be like this, this life, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know, and more importantly: the way Anderson narrates this, it doesn’t make me experience neither the 70-hour workweeks, nor anything else.

Anderson, by the way, quit the money business a while ago, and in the afterword he says that, after all, it’s not money that matters, but love, family and friends. Yeah, sure. And this isn’t a sarcastic “yeah, sure”. This isn’t a sign of my agreement, either. This is a sign of my complete lack of interest.

Anyway, Anderson is not without brains, and he possesses a minimal amount of self-irony, too. And the things he says about the workings of the banking world are most probably true, and those things could normally throw me straight into a fit of rage and despair. However, this book doesn’t induce rage or despair in me, and I cannot work myself up into a fit because Anderson – regardless of his topic – can’t kindle any sort of emotion in me, save indifference. But at least I learned that when a boring writer talks about exciting or unsettling topics, the result is still boring.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

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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.