I’m not talking about my taste for chocolate here, rather the latest offering from Ian McEwan that I could easily have devoured in one sitting. Moving away from the more comedic territory of Solar, this novel returns to familiar McEwan themes – the role of the writer, the place of fiction, and the manipulative power of the author for example – and employs a plot device akin to that used in Atonement. Even though I’d guessed a little of what was really happening before the final chapter’s big reveal, I wasn’t disappointed.
McEwan apparently claimed in a recent Edinburgh Festival appearance that he’s not a British (as opposed to purely English) writer, but for me viewing this as a purely “English” piece of fiction didn’t and doesn’t really ring true. So, Selena Frome (her surname rhymes with plume, it’s been drilled into me, so I’ll repeat it here), the narrator, a flawed graduate recruit to MI5, works in an organisation focused on the political struggles of the early 70s, developing a fascination with both sides of the Northern Ireland troubles, even though her primary focus is on combatting 20th Century communism in all is guises.
The action takes place in the early 1970s – within my own lifetime, but an utterly unrecognisable landscape, still affected by postwar uncertainties (economic, social and geopolitical), and learning to live with the freedoms of the 1960s. As a civil servant, I thankfully don’t recognise the atmosphere of hostility towards women that Serena encounters in the office setting, nor the lack of prospects that even a well-educated female of the time seems to have been up against.
McEwan again pokes fun at the writer’s craft – through the earnest Serena’s disdain for novelists’ tricks, for example. She has to rank novelists as part of her new intelligence role, while McEwan’s contemporaries, including his publisher and a young Martin Amis, make guest appearances. Tom Haley – the novelist who takes on the voice of Serena while being lied to by her – is faintly ridiculous, while McEwan shows he can laugh at himself by using his own early writings and making fun of the institution that he and the rising young author share. But in doing so, is he also laughing at us as well?