What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths

Enduring Love
by Ian McEwan

This is a story of love in all its forms, and both how painful and how uplifting that love can be. It also manages to be a compelling thriller, beginning with an event that sets wheels in motion for a series of misfortunes, building up to a dramatic climax.

Clarissa and Joe are happy, utterly in love after many years together. While at a picnic, they unwittingly become part of a terrible accident. At first it seems that the rest of the book will be them coming to terms with tragedy. But it quickly turns out to be something else, or at least, as the narrator, Joe keeps insisting that something else is going on, but Clarissa and the police don’t believe him. Is this a classic case of the unreliable narrator? Or is there a genuine terror stalking Joe and Clarissa, ready to erupt at any time?

For a start, Joe is easily lost in daydreams or work-related thoughts from the reality at hand. From the first page he is challenging his own memory. Did it happen the way he describes? He knows certain details conflict with other witness accounts gathered by the police and Clarissa’s memory. He says, “I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible.”

Joe is a freelance science writer, a successful one, but also a man who feels that he made a mistake leaving research behind, so he is not entirely happy with where he is. He loves Clarissa unreservedly but she is unable to have children, which has always been a huge source of pain for them both. It’s a set-up that allows pure happiness to fall apart very quickly.

Through a psychological thriller framework, McEwan examines relationship love, parental love, religious love (though only at the extreme end), the love shared in friendship, sibling love (quite briefly) and obsessive love. It also examines a few forms of psychological instability, from the uncertainties of grief through to a far more troubling example.

McEwan writes well and keeps the possibilities open as he carries us along to the climax. In true thriller style, the augurs are all there that something is coming, but as a literary novel you know that the actual ending may be a more mundane realisation of truth.

I didn’t greatly like Joe. He is a bit dismissive of Clarissa, even condescending at times. While he has acquired tidbits of knowledge from far outside his original physics training, he seems to assume Clarissa’s only interests are her scholarly work on Keats, and children. I’m not sure if this is a failing of the character or of McEwan. Certainly, neither of the other female characters comes off well from Joe’s descriptions either. One is a widow too distracted by her loss to pay attention to her children, the other essentially a bimbo. I hope the problem is Joe’s.

Interestingly, although this all sounds plot-driven, despite having watched the film made of this book a few years back, I could not remember where it was going. Perhaps that’s just my memory, or the film was somehow incoherent, but perhaps it is because this book is sneakily about the writing after all: “What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness.”

First published 1997 by Jonathan Cape.

One day in the life

by Ian McEwan

I have read a few of McEwan’s books, and have had a pretty variable response to them. This one kept me so thoroughly hooked (staying up until 1 a.m. to finish it) and had such masterful language that it is definitely my favourite so far (oh, except maybe A Child in Time, which was heartbreakingly beautiful).

The story is about one particular Saturday, a day that is both ordinary and extraordinary for main character Henry, a brain surgeon in a wealthy part of London. McEwan goes into a lot of detail in this book, not something I remember particularly of his previous writing, so I suppose maybe it’s intended as a reflection of Henry’s precise nature. There are pages and pages detailing medical procedures, for example, both adding authority to the story and revealing how very much the job is a part of who Henry is.

Henry wakes early, unable to sleep, and by chance sees a plane burst into flames from his bedroom window. This is how his Saturday begins. It goes on to include a squash game, a minor car crash, food shopping, a family reunion and his observation of the Don’t Invade Iraq protest march. Yes, it’s set on that particular Saturday.

It’s an interesting set-up and is executed extremely well. The impending Iraq invasion pervades the whole day. Henry can’t get it out of his mind. He is completely torn on the subject. Not ambivalent – he definitely cares – but he is honestly not sure whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s not concerned about WMDs but he has met Iraqi intellectuals who tell awful tales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, tales that make him think that removing such a man from power could only be a good thing. But Henry’s an intelligent, astute enough man to know that it’s not that simple. For one thing, war is always to be avoided. There’s also the question of what happens next – does the UK suffer from reprisals? Does Iraq get another terrible dictator who inflicts unspeakable crimes on his own people? Does the US try to rule Iraq, causing a much bigger, longer-drawn-out war? Does this give us licence to go invade every other country with a despotic leader who we think is doing bad things?

I think this is part of why I liked the book so much. I relate very strongly to this in Henry. It’s easy to say in hindsight whether something was good or bad, whether it was done well or badly. But at the time I was so uncertain. A lot of my friends went on that protest march through London and a few people were surprised that I didn’t. I’m a pacifist – I could never be for war – but there was a strong argument for removing Saddam from power. It would be wonderful if this sort of thing could be managed through the International Court of Justice, but it’s never that simple.

But back to the book…Henry is in some ways an irritating, smug, well-to-do character who is so far removed from war zones and human rights violations that it could have been hard to care about what he thinks. He certainly has money, a comfortable lifestyle, a loving wife and children, a job he thrives on. His difficulty relating to his creatively minded children could have been clichéd. At a party I might not be inclined to speak to him. But McEwan manages to both find the humanity of this man but also write his story in a way that does not ask you to care. In a way, the whole point is how comfortably middle class Henry is because he epitomises the capitalist consumer, he is the person Al Quaeda despises and wages hate campaigns against. And he is very close in type to the people who actually made the decision about whether or not to go to war. You imagine that he was probably classmates at public school and later university with key cabinet members.

In his favour, Henry is a thinking man and McEwan gives him a believably erudite turn of phrase. For instance, when considering his difficulty with reading poetry, his thoughts run:

“…it cost him an effort of an unaccustomed sort. Even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes. Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time…But to do its noticing and judges, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling.”

(Incidentally, I’m not sure if I somehow had an American edition but I did get a little annoyed that this well bred Englishman was using American terms like “airplane” and “movie” rather than the British English equivalents, but that’s the sub-editor in me coming out.)

This was a very well executed novel that held me in its thrall and I am very grateful to Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…] for recommending it.

First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape