Ian McEwan


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

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Ian McEwan (Britain, 1948)

The sophisticated, almost poetic, writing style of The Child in Time approaches hyper-realism, describing actions and thoughts in minute details, blending stream of consciousness and impressionism. On the downside, too often the chapters feel like independent short stories (or indulgent detours). The plot is rather slim and, ultimately, uneventful. The unsuspenseful mystery of the ghost childcare manual and the conventional ending are no match for the exquisite prose style. McEwan is a great writer in search of a great story.

Stephen is a member of the government's commission on childcare but doesn't really care. He attends meetings, listens, pretends to vote, but his mind is elsewhere. He lives lonely, indifferent to most things in the world, only awaken by the sight of little girls. The reason for this is that two years earlier someone kidnapped his three-year old daughter while she was in his shopping cart at a supermarket. The police quickly forgot about the crime and he tried in vain to find clues. His wife Julie, who had loved him passionately, went into a state of depression and eventually left him. Stephen had been a bestselling author of children's books. That happened by mistake: he set out to write his first novel as a novel of the hippie generation but then ended up writing a book about his childhood. A famous publisher convinced him to advertise it as a childhood novel and it sold millions of copies. The publisher's manager, Charles, and his 12-year older wife Thelma, a theoretical physicist, eventually became his best friends. Charles entered politics and became a minister. Then one day suddenly resigned, influenced by his wife's desire for a quiet rural lifestyle and for writing a book. Stephen and Julie meet months later again and even make love, but their relationship seems doomed. Stephen's mind increasingly drifts back to his childhood. One day his imagination even shows him his young parents in a pub, their bicycles parked outside, having a difficult discussion. They too have been devastated by the loss of their only grandchild. On his way to Charles' and Thelma's new home Stephen is almost killed in a terrible accident. He saves the life of a truck driver. Then he heads for the friends' house, where he has to elude a group of beggars. He soon realizes that Charles has gone mad, regressed to childhood. Stephen tells Thelma about seeing his young parents in the pub and asks her about time travel. She gives him a delirious answer about contemporary physics. Stephen's morale is shaken again when his daughter's birthday approaches. He even buys her a pile of gifts. One day the prime minister's office calls and summons him to a lunch with the prime minister. On his way to the appointment Stephen sees a girl in a school's playground who looks just like Kate. He jumps out of the car and rushes to the school. He tells the headmaster that this Ruth must certainly be his stolen daughter, but the school has known them for longer and he has personally known her parents since she was a baby. This embarrassing incident, however, has the effect of somewhat healing Stephen. When the prime minister's secretary calls again, Stephen refuses another appointment and accepts only when the secretary implies that he has no choice. One night a member of the committee, Morley, shows up (bleeding because he tripped on the stairs). He delivers a book that a disaffected civil servant has given him. That book has been hidden by the government but appears to be an official publication that contradicts what Stephen's and Morley's childcare committee has been working on. Stephen is on his way to visit his ill mother. His mother tells him that the episode of the pub truly happened. They were madly in love, but the war separated them; she got pregnant, Stephen's father didn't receive the news with enthusiasm, she almost felt like getting an abortion. Eerily, she remembers a child staring at them from outside the window, and remembers feeling that he was her own child. That's what convinced her to keep the child (who will be Stephen, completing the circle). While news of the childcare book secretely commissioned by the prime minister leaks to the press, Stephen is visited by the prime minister. The politician confesses that he is obsessed with Charles, who, instead, has not wanted any direct communication between them. The prime minister even had Charles spied and found out that Charles was visiting brothels. It turns out that Charles is indeed on his way to visit Charles because Thelma called him (at the train station he gives his old coat to a poor little beggar to whom he had once given money). When he arrives, Thelma breaks the news: Charles has died. Unbeknownst to Stephen, Charles had repeatedly tried to kill himself. Thelma also confesses that Charles himself is the author of the childcare manual, and that he wrote it because the prime minister ordered him to do so. That mystery clarified, the novel turns to Charles' private life: Julie calls with important news. Charles takes the first train and rushes to her cottage: she is pregnant, and in fact she is about to give birth. It does so with his help and the new baby restores them to a normal couple life.

Amsterdam looks like a satirical fresco of a generation of spoiled intellectuals; but it is also something in between an elegant dance, like a baroque minuet, a lightweight Hitchcock thiller drenched in black humor, and a moral tale about ambition. By the end of the book, the dead woman who indirectly put together the four male protagonists of the novel (her old lovers) is more mysterious than at the beginning. The two lovers who die seem to imagine her as an immoral selfish manipulator of men.

Molly has died in a terrible manner: she slowly lost her mind and died braindead. At her funeral her former lovers meet: Clive, a composer, Vernon, a journalist, and Julian, a politician. Clive and Vernon have remained friends, and despise Molly's possessive husband George. George introduces Clive to Hart, a beat poet, who boasts of having slept with Molly when she was still a teenager, but Clive whispers in his ear that he's just a liar. Clive also despises Julian, an ambitious hypocritical populist; and Julian shows him what a good politician he is when he responds to his public attacks by threatening to spread gossip about his sex life with Molly.

Clive, alone at home, twice divorced, works on a new symphony, the biggest commission of his life, to be presented for the millennium. He is a traditional composer in the age of avantgarde music. He is terrified of dying like Molly, reduced to a vegetable. Vernon, married, is trying to save a dying newspaper (that despises Julian) and orders to publish a story about Siamese twins. George calls Vernon and mentions that he has shocking photos of Julian. Vernon doesn't have time to think it over that Julian's attorney shows up threatening a lawsuit if the newspaper publishes them. Clive calls that he needs to see him. Vernon stops by Clive's place and hears Clive's odd request: Clive wants Vernon to kill him should Clive even become an idiot like Molly at the end. Vernon hates George for how he imprisoned Molly but George does show him photos that would ruin Julian's political career and save the newspaper. Molly took them and her widower George is now the legal owner. Meanwhile, Vernon accepts Clive's request but on the condition that Clive pledges to do the same to him: kill him if he becomes an idiot. Vernon fears an insurrection at the newspaper when he decides to publish the photos of Julian in female attire: the staff hates Julian but does not want the newspaper to become a tabloid. Vernon justifies his decision as an act to destroy the career of a dangerous demagogue. Clive too objects: he thinks that being a tranvenstite shouldn't be treated like a crime, and that Molly kept the photos confidential. A big argument ensues between the two old friends.

Clive goes hiking to get inspiration for the ending of his symphony. At the top of the mountain he is interrupted by a quarrel between a woman with a backpack and a man who drags her away. He watches them unseen and walks away, determined to concentrate on his music, and unsure whether it was a quarrel between a married couple or what. He judges that his artistic inspiration is more important than the possible life-threatening situation of the woman.

Julian's wife Rose is a surgeon. She knows of Julian's odd hobby, of him asking Molly to take those photographs. Rose is happy that Molly died.

Vernon calls Clive to make peace and hears Clive's story of the quarreling couple. Later Vernon connects the dots with a story that every newspaper covered: Clive just witnessed a serial rapist at work. Vernon calls Clive again and orders him to go to the police immediately: a woman has been killed because of his negligence. Clive refuses, busy with finishing his symphony, and determined that the episode does not spoil his inspiration. Clive accuses Vernon of being equally immoral with the photo scandal. The photos are a big success a make Vernon the hero of the newspaper; but Rose holds a televised press conference in which she shows the photos herself, explains that Molly was a dear friend of the family, and that she (Rose) has always known of her husband's odd hobby, and then calls Vernon the immoral one. Public opinion swings against Vernon. Julian's career is temporarily saved, Vernon's is doomed. Viewed as a scoundrel, he is promptly replaced by a cunning assistant, Frank, who supported him only in private, never in public.

Clive, under pressure to deliver the ending to the conductor who is already rehearsing the symphony in Amsterdam, has lost his concentration after Vernon's call and cannot find the right concentration anymore. Clive feels that this is his last chance to prove to the world the genius that he is. Vernon does something even worse than calling him: Vernon alerts the police that Clive is a witness and the cops show up to drag Clive to the police station. This ruins his chance to properly finish the symphony in time.

Vernon follows Clive to Amsterdam. Clive is horrified when he hears the rehearsal of his ending: he never fixed the weak section. When Vernon and Clive meet, they poison each other, loyal to their pledge, having convinced themselves that the other has gone mad. Clive dies dreaming that Molly was the girl he did not rescue from the rapist and she's now dating a hated music critic. Vernon dies dreaming that Molly is now dating the hated Frank. Julian and George are dispatched to retried the corpses in Amsterdam. The premiere has been canceled because the symphony's ending is an awful copy of Beethoven's most famous ending. The orchestra refused to play it. Julian eventually has to resign and George denies that he sold the pitures that destroyed his career. George got his revenge over all of Molly's lovers. Now it's time for a memorial and he'll be the only lover to talk. By handing Vernon those photos, George set in motion a process that destroyed them all.

Atonement is, technically speaking, an old-fashioned melodrama in which the love between a gifted young man from the lower class and a girl from the upper class is derailed by a spoiled and jealous rich little girl. But there is a lot more inside and besides the superficial plot. The novel is divided in three parts that are not only temporally dissociated but also different in tone and style: the eloquent humor and photographic hype-realism of the first part yield to the hyper-kinetic apocalypse of the second part which segues into the existential torment of the third part. And then there's the confessional diary and the final revelation. McEwan creates a surreal hybrid of Stendhal's dramatic realism, Virginia Woolf's poetic introversion, John Constable's landscape painting and Bosch's infernal visions; with a bit of Homer's "Odyssey" (the adventures of the hero trying to return to his woman) and a bit of Italo Calvino in the final revelation. Halfway into the third part, when the girl responsible for everything receives a letter of advice on how to improve her story, we suddenly realize that we don't know who has been narrating the events, who the omniscient narrator is. We begin to suspect the truth but at the end there is another twist about what the narrator has narrated. The novelist wants to atone for her sin through the novel that chronicles her sin, but realizes that she can create a better truth for future generations. All of this, the "sin" and the "atonement", takes place during the apocalypse of World War II, as if to imply that this tragedy is a very minor tragedy (and this sin a minor sin) in the grand scheme of things; as if to hint that there are countless tiny tragedies in grand tragedy of human evil.

The first part takes place in 1935, when Hitler has just seized power in Germany. Briony is a 13-year-old enfant prodige of literature, who started writing stories at the age of 11. She is also a maniac of tidiness. She lives with her parents in a country mansion. Her mother Emily is constantly lying down in bed with migraines, and her father Jack is constantly at the office, busy with bureaucracy and policies related to international affairs. Her chain-smoking older sister Cecilia came to visit the family during a heat wave and is bored to death. Briony and Cecilia are now expecting their brother Leon, who will be coming with a friend, Paul. Briony has written a play for Leon's homecoming. Briony has carefully prepared the stage, the posters and even the tickets. The actors are three visiting cousins, whose parents are divorcing after the mother (Emily's wild sister Hermione) has run off with another man to Paris: the nine-year-old twins Jackson and Pierrot, and the 15-year-old Lola. Lola is a scheming girl who immediately manages to steal the protagonist's role from Briony, and the two twins are terrible actors. Robbie is Cecilia's childhood friends, the son of their cleaning lady and of a father (the former gardener) who ran away when he was still a child. He is poor but grew up with Cecilia and Leon, and he did so well in school that Briony's father decided to pay for his college education. Hence he went to the same prestigious college as Cecilia, and did very well again. Now he is dreaming of studying medicine, and Briony's father has again decided to pay for it. Cecilia's attitude towards Robbie is hostile, as if she resented his intelligence. During an awkward conversation, Robbie causes Cecilia to break a precious vase, whose pieces fall into a pond. Cecilia strips a bit to pick up the pieces and walks away furious. Briony witnesses the incident from afar and cannot make sense of their actions, but suspects something dirty. Leon arrives and Lola is intrigued by Paul, who is handsome and rich, while Cecilia notices mainly his vain stupidity. Paul boasts that he can make cheap chocolate out of chemicals instead of cocoa and plans to sell some to the army. He stares languidly at the teenage Lola. Leon tells Cecilia that he invited Robbie to the family dinner and she is upset but can't express why. Briony's play collapses because she suddenly gives up, unhappy with Lola and the twins, upset by the sexy scene she just witnessed. Emily is lying in bed but she can guess everything that is happening simply by listening to the sounds. Emily dislikes Lola, in which she recognizes her sister Hermione's hystrionics. Jack, Emily's husband, is a politician involved in the rearmament policy following Hitler's rise to power.

What nobody realizes is that Robbie is madly in love with Cecilia. Robbie writes a letter to apologize but ends mistakenly giving Briony an obscene love letter to deliver to Cecilia. Briony then disappears for a while, then she resurfaces for dinner, all excited to meet Leon again. And delivers the letter to Cecilia, but open: she opened it and presumably read it. Briony tells Lola what she read in it and they both argue that Robbie must be a maniac, which also explains the mysterious scene by the pond. Briony finds Robbie and Cecilia alone in the library and thinks that Robbie is assaulting her; but in fact the exact opposite has happened: Cecilia has confessed to Robbie that she's in love too and they just made love. The family dinner is disrupted by the disappearance of the twins who have attacked Lola (at least she says so, although we suspect it may have been an encounter with Paul because Emily heard them together) and left a farewell letter.

During the search for the twins, in the dark, a man assaults and rapes Lola, and Briony decides that it must be Robbie the maniac even though she didn't see his face and something makes us suspect it is actually Paul. Therefore she tells the police that she "saw" Robbie attack Lola, while Paul calmly takes a nap, clearly not afraid of being accused of rape by Lola. Then Briony runs to Cecilia's room and finds Robbie's letter that she produces as evidence that Robbie is a maniac. Cecilia protests in vain that she is in love with Robbie (a revelation that creates further shock). When Robbie returns, having found the twins, he is arrested based on Briony's testimony. Robbie is sentenced to jail.

The second part is set in 1940 during World War II when the British have entered France to defend it from Germany's aggression. Cecilia has left her parents determined to never talk to her family again, and she has become a nurse in a hospital. Robbie gained an early release after 3.5 years of prison in return for joining the army, and saw her briefly before leaving for the front. She then wrote to him every week, waiting for him to come back. He is now fighting for survival, trying to reach Dunkirk with two fellow soldiers, Mace and Needle, amid the apocalyptic chaos of the British and French rout. His motivation to survive is to see Cecilia again, and maybe to be rehabilitated: Briony has written a letter to Cecilia in which she seems ready to recant her testimony, besides revealing that she too has left their parents and she too has enrolled as a nurse in a London hospital. Her career as an aspiring writer never took off.

Robbie encourages Cecilia to restore ties with her family but still resents Briony, the girl who sent him to prison. His only explanation for her hatred is that, when she was ten years old, she jumped into a river to test his love for her and then told him plainly that she was in love with him. Robbie, Mace and Nettle wander through the apocalyptic chaos of the British rout, at every step witnessing massacres and surviving by miracle. When they finally reach te beach of Dunkirk where the surviving British troops are waiting to be rescued, they witness further barbaric behavior, this time by their own fellow countrymen: they narrowly save the life of an airman who is about to by lynched by soldiers furious that the British airforce didn't defend them. Wounded and desperate, but clinging on Cecilia's last letter, Robbie finally makes it back to England.

The third part is about Briony's new life as a war nurse in the same hospital where Cecilia works. Briony befriends Fiona and is terrified of their boss Sister Drummond. She keeps writing, mostly a journal. She witnesses her own apocalypse: all the maimed soldiers being delivered to the hospital. Her father writes a terse note that Lola is to marry Paul. Then one day she receives a lengthy letter from a publisher. It is another rejection letter, but this time the reviewer writes a lengthy advice on how to improve her story. Her story is about the pond scene between Robbie and Cecilia, except that she removed the tragic consequences. The reviewer suggests improvements which are exactly what happened and what we read in the pond scene...

A remorseful Briony attends Lola's and Paul's wedding, uninvited. Briony now strongly believes that Paul is the man who raped Lola, and perhaps it was no rape at all, just consensual sex. Briony is tempted to stand up and tell everybody the truth but can't find the courage.

She finds the courage to face her sister. Briony visits Cecilia to apologize. Cecilia, who was not expecting her, reacts coldly. What Cecilia doesn't know is that Paul is the rapist: Cecilia and Robbie always thought that the rapist was Danny, the son of a handyman. Cecilia doesn't let Briony speak. What Briony doesn't know is that Robbie is there. Robbie shows up, recognizes Briony and almost hits her. Then he makes his requests: Briony has to tell her parents the truth, has to write to an attorney a signed confession, and has to write to him, Robbie, a lengthy summary of the events, detailing how Danny committed the crime. It's only then that Briony has a chance to break the news to them that Paul did it and that he just married Lola. They are shocked. Robbie would like his revenge, but it is obvious now that Lola would never accuse the man who is now her husband.

The postscript is set in 1999, decades after the war ended. So far the omniscient narrator of the novel has been anonymous. Now the narrator becomes an "I", Briony. It is her 77th birthday and she is a widow afflicted by little strokes that, her doctor told her, will eventually cause dementia: she knows that she will forget everything she knows. She has become a famous writer and has been working all her life on the novel of Cecilia and Robbie. She sees briefly Paul and Lola walk past here: Paul has become a lord, and they are immensely rich, and famous for their philanthropy. She cannot publish her life's novel because they would certainly sue her and her publisher. The novel, that contains the truth about how Paul and Lola caused an innocent to be jailed, can only be published when they are dead. For her birthday the surviving family reunites in the old country mansion and stages a surprise: Leon's grandchildren enact the play of Arabella that Briony wrote for Leon when she was 13 and that was never enacted. Briony tells us that she kept rewriting the novel of her life, and that now she has settled on the version that we just read. Unfortunately, it's ending is not the real one. In reality, Robbie died of his wounds while he was trying to reach Dunkirk, and therefore never returned to Britain, and Cecilia died a few months later in a bombing. They never met again, and Briony never met them again. But Briony has decided that her atonement is to give her happiness at least in her novel.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )