In my review of On Chesil Beach, I commented that I hadn’t read any of McEwan’s work since being profoundly disturbed by The Child in Time when I read it in the late 1980s. On Chesil Beach made me realise that I wanted to read more McEwan. I was therefore interested in this novel as soon as I saw it on the “new releases” table in my local bookstore. I elected to listen to the audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson, as it was cheaper for me to acquire than the text version and I knew from past experience that whatever the novel was like, Stevenson’s narration would be superb.
Set in England in the early 1970s, the novel is a first person narrative which tells the story of Serena Frome, a naive young Cambridge graduate with a mediocre degree in mathematics, who is recruited to the British domestic intelligence service (MI5) through her lover, a middle-aged academic. Serena is a voracious, if not particularly careful, reader of fiction. She particularly likes social realist novels, containing a character with whom she can identify. Because of her familiarity with modern literary fiction, she is assigned to Operation Sweet Tooth, MI5’s excursion into the propaganda aspect of the Cold War. MI5 has decided to fund a number of writers identified as unsympathetic to Russia and to communism. The funds are channeled through a front organization and the writers are unaware of the ultimate source of the money and of their intended role as weapons in the war of ideas. Serena is assigned to recruit Tom Haley, a young writer who has published a number of short stories and who has written in support of writers in detention in the Eastern Bloc. Serena initially falls for Haley’s writing and they eventually fall in love, which puts her in a moral quandary. Does she tell Tom who she is and what she does, which would mean losing her job and losing his love? Does she say nothing and continue to deceive him?
There are lots of things I love about this novel. McEwan’s prose is elegant and accessible. He conveys the atmosphere in London in the early 1970s: strikes, energy cuts, IRA bombings, pub rock and dingy share houses in what was then down-at-heel and is now super-gentrified Camden. McEwan also conveys the sexism of office politics and the condescending attitude towards women in the workplace. Serena is an interesting character with a believable voice. I'm always impressed when a male novelist writes convincingly from a female point of view. She is sexy and beautiful, clever in some ways but totally clueless and lacking in insight, something of a snob and frequently irritating, but fundamentally decent and troubled by her conscience. For much of the novel I didn't like Serena very much, but I developed sympathy for her as the narrative progressed.
Tom Haley is also interesting, in part because McEwan gave the character much of his own background. Like McEwan, Tom is a University of Sussex graduate who wrote short stories before he wrote novels and a number of Tom’s short stories - which are summarised in the work and explained through Serena’s reaction to them - are stories actually written by McEwan. (I know this from reading an interview with McEwan in my local newspaper). In addition, McEwan’s editor becomes Tom’s editor and a number of other literary identities from McEwan’s life become part of Tom’s life. While Tom is attractive and likeable, when I realised just how much of McEwan’s life story he shared, it seemed excessive and somewhat self-indulgent. Once I’d finished the work, though, I felt that less strongly, although the feeling didn’t entirely disappear.
This is not an espionage novel, notwithstanding the plot. It’s a novel about the process of writing and the process of reading, about the control of the narrative in a novel and about relationship between writers and readers. It’s also about truth, deception and trust. These metafiction aspects of the work are what I love most of all.
From a slow start, McEwan builds up the tension and eventually the novel becomes a page-turner. In audiobook terms, it made for compulsive listening. As I listened, I knew that there’d be a twist at the end and I tried to work out what it might be. I was right about one aspect of the resolution – what in my view is probably its least plausible aspect – but I didn’t otherwise guess where McEwan was going. And for that, I am very grateful. Being taken by surprise made for a much more enjoyable literary experience. I found the work engaging and entertaining enough to be able to suspend disbelief.
Since finishing the book yesterday morning, I’ve read a number of reviews, written by both professional critics and other readers here on GR. Many of the more negative reviews express disappointment that the book is not as good as those works which the reviewers consider to be McEwan’s best. As someone who has read so little of McEwan’s writing, all I can say is that if this is not one of his better novels, then I have a lot of pleasure ahead me as I read those which are.
More than a day after finishing the audiobook, I’m still thinking about the writing and the characters. Generally that would lead to a five star rating. I remain of the view that the extent of the autobiographical material was self-indulgent (although it did heighten the sense of the work as metafiction), and that makes me inclined to knock off a star. On the other hand, Juliet Stevenson’s narration was so amazing (have I mentioned that I adore having her read to me?), that it deserves five stars all of its own. So 4.5 stars it is, at least for now. Until I decide which novel really is McEwan’s best work.