Brilliant! This is McEwan at his best. The whole novel is a monologue by an intelligent, philosophical, articulate fetus who is witness to a murder plot. The storyline is loosely from Hamlet, (I’ll leave you to make those parallels) although it’s not meant to be an exact retelling. It’s a classic tale of murder and deceit, with commentary on life as we know it, thrown in for good measure. The fetus speaks quite casually yet very eloquently, about many aspects of our era, about the world he is about to join. Slow down and savour these parts, even as you are compelled to keep reading to see what happens next in this compact and captivating novel.
Trudy has betrayed her husband John. She’s still in his home, a filthy dilapidated, priceless London townhouse, living with John’s brother Claude. This arrangement is incomprehensible, even to the unborn child, because Claude is banal and vile. Nevertheless the two have a plan, totally unaware that there is a witness to their plot–an inquisitive and thoughtful nine month old resident of Trudy’s womb.
To give you a flavour of the writing, here is the first paragraph:
“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”
This is an elegant novel about a spy, not a “spy novel.” The book starts with this sentence. “My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty year ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. 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.”
Set in the cultural Cold war scene of the early 70’s, Sweet Tooth is a literary spy novel–that’s literature and its relationship to life, politics, and the imagination. Serena Frome enters the espionage world on a covert mission to combat communism by infiltrating the intellectual world. Although there are no car chases, guns blazing, or poisoned cocktails, we do see the psychological toll that being a spy can take, never knowing who can be trusted. Ian McEwan is a master at smooth prose and well crafted intelligence. However, despite a few genius twists and turns (especially the ending), the novel would feel weak in plot for anyone looking for a page turner.
If you are new to Ian McEwan this is not a novel to introduce you to this author. Better to pick up Atonement or Saturday for that. But if you are familiar with his works, this is a good one because he has put a lot of himself into the novel that would be recognizable to his fans. The story itself is about a writer and the writer’s uni, publisher, awards, peer authors, and even his earlier short stories (ones he wrote during the time period of this novel) are all based on McEwan’s own life. The only thing he says is that, “unfortunately a beautiful woman never came into my room and offered me a stipend.”
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge. She presides in family court with a fierce loyalty and intelligence. She is an accomplished pianist. Her life has been filled with hard work and a passion for her job and she now finds herself at a middle aged crossroads. She has a lingering regret about the reasons for her own childlessness and now her marriage of thirty years is falling apart.
At this time she is called on to try an urgent life-or-death case. A 17 year old boy needs a blood transfusion to live, but his religion and his devout parents are against it. Time is running out. Should the court overrule? In her dedication she goes to visit the boy, to make sure he understands what is going on. Her judgement turns out to have momentous consequences for them both.
In order to avoid spoilers I cannot reveal the verdict or the unexpected twist her decision has on the case, except to say that the story is really much more about the judge’s personal life than the case itself. But that’s what I found interesting. It wasn’t just about the one case, albeit it pivotal, but a view into several interesting cases and a glimpse into the world of a High Court judge.
For McEwan fans, this is once again a beautifully mastered work. Not everyone appreciates his writing style, but I have tremendous respect for how this author captures nuance in relationships and how his writing is at once compelling and exquisite. With relatively few words he deftly deals with the complexity of issues while creating empathy for the characters.
Different from his master work Atonement and the comic Solar, ‘The Children Act’ reminded me of Saturday and On Chesil Beach. Even though it is rather short, more like a novella, it covers a lot of ground. The next McEwan I want to read is the espionage novel Sweet Tooth which I somehow missed last year.
Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. He is in a special category for me. His books take time to read because I want to savour, not devour. ‘Atonement’ and ‘On Chesil Beach’ were good and I especially appreciated ‘Saturday’. ‘Solar’ is a bit different; still well written but not as eloquent. Even though Solar is fiction, it has a lot to say about how we view climate change as a planet. We do need to consider alternatives, especially after the incredible nuclear tragedy in Japan. One of the things I find hard to understand about Japan, is how they could build so many nuclear plants after Hiroshima? Wouldn’t they be the people most motivated to avoid this source of energy? Indeed, just today I noticed a report in the news about anti-nuclear protestors there. Perhaps there are no viable alternatives yet, but then it begs these questions: When we are as clever about other forms of technology, why do we continue to destroy the earth and are unable to devise cleaner, more sustainable sources of energy ? Why do we let politics hamper the quest, and why are we unwilling to alter our lifestyles enough to reduce the incredible energy demand? Climate change is complicated and evokes reactions ranging from strong emotions to complete apathy.
‘Solar’ is a brilliant comic novel about a selfish, short, fat, philandering climate change scientist named Michael Beard who doesn’t do much besides coasting on a Nobel prize he won years ago. Like our treatment of the planet, he tends to ignore his own health, postpones dealing with a melanoma, and is addictive and over consumptive. Will Beard’s scientific brilliance win out before his pathological self-destructiveness catches up? So with the species.
McEwan likes science and is knowledgeable about it. This is something that becomes evident in this book and in his novel ‘Saturday’ which is about a neurosurgeon. So if you don’t like science, some of it may seem boring. But hang in there because there also parts which are side-splittingly funny. Global warming is no laughing matter and the humour carries a dark side. At the heart of the book are sober themes which we cannot ignore.