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Posts Tagged ‘Ian McEwan’

thechildrenBritish High Court judge Fiona Maye is known for her deliberate yet sensitive decisions in family court, ruling on difficult custody issues and the controversial case of conjoined twins. She always keeps in mind the law prioritizing the best interests of the child,  and she puts aside all distractions to concentrate on the case at hand. Maybe that’s why, as she wrestled with the fate of the twins, she failed to notice her 30-year-marriage to Jack slipping away. But now, just as she faces the case of a teenage boy refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because of his and his family’s religious beliefs, Jack accuses her of a lack of passion and asserts his right to an affair with a younger woman.

Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is a carefully observed and carefully constructed character study focusing on two of his recurring themes, passion and obsession. Jack is wrong in accusing Fiona of lacking passion just because they haven’t had sex in “seven weeks and a day.” It’s more that Fiona is so engaged in her work; she put off having children until it was too late, although she is an involved and affectionate aunt. She loves music too, playing the piano in her head as she walks to work to shut out the outside world, and also performing with a small circle of friends. And she loves her academic husband and the comfortable life they share. Personal ultimatums are not her style

All of this goes through Fiona’s mind as she must decide in favor of 17-year-old Adam, his parents and church, or the hospital and medical establishment. The situation is urgent; without the transfusion, Adam has just days to live. Setting aside her own crisis, Fiona visits Adam in hospital, where she finds him an articulate defender of his faith but perhaps somewhat naive about his impending fate. He is teaching himself to play the violin, and the two share an intimate musical moment. Each is convinced they understand one another. Then Fiona makes her ruling with its life-altering repercussions and unexpected consequences.

Like McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, The Children Act is short but impressive.  I read it in one afternoon and am still thinking about it days later, both its well-drawn main characters — Fiona, Adam and Jack — and secondary ones, such as the judicial colleague who is always the bearer of bad news. That he once made a patently bad ruling seems not to have affected him, while Fiona’s “good” judgment causes endless soul-searching.

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Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss) is a sly wink, a puff of smoke and a few mirrors. Pretending to write a spy novel, McEwan has gone all “tricksy” — his word, not mine — on us with a story that has little to do with actual espionage but everything to do with deceit. All writers are spies, don’t you know, in cahoots with readers. Double agents everywhere. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Narrator Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”) is a pretty, blonde maths student at Cambridge circa 1970, a voracious, indiscriminate reader of paperback novels who is enamored with Solzhenitsyn and a married history tutor of her father’s generation. Tony Canning once worked for MI5, and, over the course of their idyllic but mostly secret affair, he grooms her for the intelligence service before unceremoniously dumping her and disappearing. Still, Serena accepts a lowly clerical job at MI5 — the only kind of position open in the security service to young women of the era.

Readers know from the get-go that Serena’s days as a spy are numbered because she announces it in the first paragraph, looking back some 40 years: “Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

This lover  doesn’t show up for awhile as Serena describes her ascent as a fledgling Cold Warrior; she makes a couple of friends, reads incessantly, wonders if her bedsit has been searched, keeps up with current politics (Heath, miners, IRA) and is eventually dispatched to clean up a safe house. But this serves as prelude to her part in Sweet Tooth, an operation by which MI5 indulges in cultural warfare, secretly funding certain writers through fake foundation grants. Serena’s mission is to approach Tom Haley, a young writer of fiction and journalism, and offer him a stipend so he can take time off from teaching and write a novel. Just don’t tell him where the money’s coming from.

You may think you know where this is going, and you may be right, although McEwan veers off into meta-fiction to offer several of Tom Haley’s short stories, which strongly resemble McEwan’s early works. (Tom also shares some autobiographical details with McEwan, including friends such as Martin Amis.) Serena reads Tom’s stories, thinks she “knows” him, and falls in love and into bed. Although MI5 would never tell its secret writers what to write, Serena knows that Tom’s bleak, dystopian novel of father and daughter is so not what they had in mind.

Both Serena and Tom are a bit earnest, narcissistic and smug, in the way of young university graduates. McEwan serves their eventual comeuppance with a quick twist, which hardly surprises if you’ve been paying attention.

Sweet Tooth isn’t a masterpiece like Atonement, nor does it offer the emotional depths of  On Chesil Beach and Enduring Love. If you want to read a McEwan spy tale, go back to noirish The Innocent. Think of Sweet Tooth as a well-written entertainment, a playful exercise in literary sleight-of-hand.  Or should that be slight-of-hand?

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Cecil Valance is a Rupert Brooke-alike. The handsome young poet breezes into the home of fellow Cambridge University student George Sawle in the late summer of 1913, capturing the hearts of both George and his younger sister, Daphne. Before he leaves, he pens a poem about his weekend visit, “Two Acres,” in Daphne’s autograph book. With its paen to the English countryside and lines about lovers’ secret kisses in the shadows, the poem is destined to go down in history, much in the manner of  Brooke’s “The Soldier” (If I should die, think only this of me . . .), quoted by Winston Churchill and memorized by generations of schoolchildren.

The three days Cecil spends with the Sawles and his composition of the poem, including  ripping up one version and discarding it,  is beautifully detailed in the first section of Alan Hollinghurst’s involving  novel, The Stranger’s Child. In these first hundred pages, Hollinghurst constructs such an impeccable foundation for his sprawling family saga, social comedy/history that after I finished the book — another 350 pages — I went back and read this section again with admiration and appreciation.

Not that the next four episodes, which unexpectedly gallop across a century, leaping decades in the process, aren’t praiseworthy. But they miss the vitality of Cecil, or “Sizzle”, as he is known to his aristocratic family and friends. Of course, that’s one of the points Hollinghurst is making in writing of the vagaries of love and fame and mythmaking.

By the time the book’s second section begins at Corley Court, the Valances’ ancestral home, a hideous Victorian monstrosity, a dozen years have passed. Cecil is long dead, killed by a German sniper during World War II. His marble effigy lies in Corley’s chapel — the hands are all wrong, thinks George Sawles — and Daphne has become Lady Valance. She has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and has two children, Corinna and Wilfred. Also on hand for a “Cecil” weekend are several newcomers to the story, including a young gay artist, Revel Ralph, with whom Daphne is carrying on an intense flirtation, and Sebby, Cecil’s literary executor, who may have been another of his lovers.

Practically every male character in the book is either gay or bi-, and society’s changing attitudes toward homosexuality is a recurring theme throughout the novel. “The love that dare not speak its name” is still muffled in the book’s third section, circa 1970, when the focus shifts to two new characters — Paul Bryant, a bank clerk with literary aspirations, and Peter Rowe, a schoolmaster at Corley, now a prep school. But the closet door is swinging open in the 1980s as Paul pursues Cecil’s aging relatives and friends for a biography that will perhaps out the poet and reveal other Valance family secrets. Is Corinna really Cecil’s daughter? The final section is set in 2008, when domestic partnerships are widely accepted, but questions still remain about Cecil’s life and legacy, which is as it should be in a novel where memory is text and subtext.

Hollinghurst’s writing is lush, lyrical, elegant and witty, occasionally arch and very knowing as he winks at the country house novels of E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh in a series of exquisite set pieces, with a nod to such contemporaries as Ian McEwan’s Atonement and A.S.Byatt’s Possession. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you love Brideshead Revisited and are anxiously awaiting the second installment of Downton Abbey on PBS, find yourself a chintz chair and a copy of The Stranger’s Child.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Knopf) via NetGalley. It expires on my Nook this week, which means I’ll soon be buying my own copy.

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