(2006: Vintage) by Ian McEwan
[Read 22-24 February 2017]
Background: I reserved the book from Essex County Libraries for free after wanting to read some early works of one of my favourite author. I had no idea about the book but when I read the blurb I knew I would enjoy it.
Plot [SPOILER ALERT]: The book tracks Colin and Mary, an unmarried British couple as they holiday in an unnamed location on the continent. They dine and relax, existing in their own world, flitting between passionate love and profound loneliness. After getting lost one night they meet an unusual man called Robert, who leads them to his bar, where he recounts his childhood. Over the following days Colin and Mary encounter Robert again as well his disabled wife, Caroline. As Colin and Mary learn more about this foreign couple’s desires and pasts, they are inadvertently drawn into a fantasy of escaping their realities. A drastic but cunning plot exploits Colin and Mary’s passivity and weaknesses, which alters everyone’s future.
Strengths: The third-person narrative is somewhat detached, which fits the characters and their peculiar nuances. Certain features of the main characters are also omitted, which prompts the imagination beyond the surface detail. This demonstrates McEwan’s trust in the reader, which is a pleasurable experience and sign of an effectual author. The complex issues of isolation, sexuality, obsession and domestic violence are interwoven. McEwan’s language is flawless as always, both accessible and elaborate. The tone is often ominous and offers multiple potentialities. Further, McEwan’s choice to alternate dialogue and emotions with descriptions of the scenery and interior never slows the narrative. Robert’s back story, which is outlined early in the book, is a personal highlight.
The quotes I considered intriguing include “…never allowed sweet things…except fruit. It was bad for the stomach. But most important…bad for boys. It made them weak in character…” [page 23], “Whatever they might say they believe, women love aggression and strength and power in men. It’s deep in their minds… Women would protest at every war. Instead they love to send their men to fight. The pacifists…are mostly men…women long to be ruled by men.” [page 54-55], “…a subject was best explored by taking the opposing view, even if it was not…the view one held oneself; a considered opinion was less important than…opposition…adversaries…would be more rigorous in argument…subjects were not explored so much as defensively reiterated…” [page 62] and “The thing about a successful holiday is that it makes you want to go home.” [page 83].
Weaknesses: Although there is much to admire about this fictional tale the final scene and concluding paragraphs appear rushed. The extraordinary actions of Robert and Caroline befit their character and back story, however it remains absurd and lacking in comprehendible motives. Therefore, McEwan’s ending feels forced and underdeveloped compared to the well-crafted narrative as a whole.
Conclusion: The book is an exceptional narrative of the literary genre. The pace McEwan writes is steady and deliberate, drawing the reader in just as Robert and Caroline do to Colin and Mary. The story contains engaging and unconventional relationships and characters. At a hundred pages with ten chapters, I found it enthralling and quick to devour. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to read an original plot with intricate language. I have not watched the film version of the book, but this is a text that perfectly explores the minutiae of life to incite debate.
Word bank: lugubrious, aperitifs, collusion, diffident, battened, susurration, contrapuntal, mausoleums, citadel, wizened, accretion, equidistant, matelot, dishevement, rhomboid, louvred, whorls, ostentatious, acolyte, affable, aria, desultory, tauter, soporific, proprietorial, weals, baize, somnambulant, augmented, referent