Ian McEwan: An Overview

November 12th saw the release of Ian McEwan's twelfth novel, Sweet Tooth.

The British author has been publishing novels and volumes of stories for 37 years. He's notched multiple bestsellers on both sides of the pond and seen several of his novels adapted for the silver screen. He even won the coveted Booker Prize for 1998's Amsterdam. He's enjoyed an extraordinary career by any measure and now seems as good a time as any to provide a road map of sorts for new readers interested in encountering his body of work. What follows is one man's opinion of what to read first, what to pick up if one's initial readings prove rewarding, and what to (perhaps) avoid.

The Best

McEwan's 2001 novel is probably his best known. It was his first novel to hit shelves after he won the Booker and it served as the source material for a popular and generally lauded film adaptation starring Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. The story of one young girl's mistaken accusation in pre-WWII England and its repercussions over the decades to follow features many of McEwan's signature themes and concerns: the gulf that can separate the world of children from the world of adults, the way our perceptions can bend to serve the narratives we have in mind for reality, the cruelty of time's relentless flow, etc. The measured presentation of the novel's final revelation renders it all the more devastating.

On Chesil Beach
Published in 2007, this slim novel contains multitudes. It is the summer of 1962. A young couple has come to a small hotel near the titular beach. They are very much in love. They are full of hope and the best of intentions. And yet they have failed to realize the breadth of the gulfs that have been carved between them by divergent expectations, class, and sexual mores. The reader can only watch as the grope for what's best in each other in a darkness they can barely comprehend.

The Comfort of Strangers
A couple is taking an extended vacation in an unnamed European city. They spend their days languishing at the hotel and their evenings wandering the narrow streets and alleyways. One night, they meet a local man and become involved in an ill-defined relationship with him and his wife. Things are clearly wrong, but they're never quite wrong enough... until it's too late.

McEwan's second novel is a harrowing gothic tale of masochism and obsession. It helped to earn him the moniker of "Ian Macabre" early in his career.

The Innocent
Leonard Marnham is a Post Office engineer enjoined to assist in a joint British and American operation to tunnel under the Russian sector of 1950s Cold War Berlin. A true innocent, he quickly learns the ways of deception from his day job, and the ways of love from Maria Eckdorf, a German divorcee who takes him into her bed. It's not long before a tragic mistake born of ignorance sets the threads of his life to unraveling.

The Innocent is perhaps McEwan's most tonally diverse novel. It contains elements of the spy narrative, the tragic love story, and the blackest of comedies before revealing itself to be a withering dissection of the price that can be paid for a lack of empathy and imagination in our relationships.

Black Dogs
The bulk of this novel concerns narrator Jeremy's attempts to understand the lives and beliefs of his mother-in-law and father-in-law, Bernard and June Tremaine. The two met and fell in love in the months following WWII. They were young Communists on fire with the power of a transformative ideology. But June's life or death encounter with two black dogs soon thereafter leads her to leave the Party for a life of spiritual seeking. The relationship sunders and Bernard stays with the Party for another decade. His rationalism will make no allowance for what he sees as his wife's credulousness and the two spend the following decades in love but apart. Bernard and Jeremy visit Berlin to watch the wall come down in '89 and we soon understand that the black dogs of the title stand for the darkness and irrationality that unmoored Europe in the 20th century and left a scar on its soul.

Intermediary Works

First Loves, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets
McEwan's first two books are both short story collections. Settings tend to be the type of depressed and squalid tableaus that would give rise to punk rock around the same time. The subject matter is almost universally dark and sexual in nature. The stories are entirely worth reading but they always feel like what they are: the work of a prodigiously gifted young writer trying on voices while he searches for his own. McEwan has said as much himself and it's telling that he hasn't published a collection of short fiction since In Between the Sheets was released 34 years ago. These tales were ultimately a means to becoming a novelist.

The Cement Garden
Four children live with their parents in a small house surrounded by dispiriting housing blocks. Then father dies. Then mother dies. Then the kids put mom in a trunk in the basement and cover her with cement so they won't be dispersed into foster care. Then things get really uncomfortable.

The Cement Garden is a first novel that most any writer would be proud to shepherd into the world. But it still feels like a warm up for the far more assured The Comfort of Strangers. The places it's going are a little to obvious a little to early and McEwan seems to be taking a little too much adolescent delight in showing us what's under the rocks he's tuned over.

Enduring Love and Amsterdam
These two novels were published in 1997 and 1998, respectively. They're divergent in subject matter, but they feel similar in execution. Enduring Love is about two men who cross paths during a freak accident, and the obsession of one for the other that is born out of that meeting. Amsterdam begins at the funeral of a woman named Molly Lane and follows two of her former lovers as they exhibit moral failings, grow to become bitter rivals, and enter into a bizarre and disastrous pact. Both books are competently designed but little more. They feel a bit like well crafted clockworks- elegantly crafted for a desired effect but lacking the sense of play and the extra spark of life that animates the author's very best work.

For Completists

The Child in Time
This story of a man who loses his three year old daughter on a trip to the supermarket and the havoc this incident wreaks on his life and marriage contains some very fine passages. Accompanying the protagonist to the toy store to purchase a carriage full of presents for his absent daughter's sixth birthday, even as the rational portion of his brain tells him that this is insanity, is heartbreaking. All the more unfortunate then that most of the novel is populated by characters that range from stock to frankly unbelievable. A number of elements feel like half-hearted stabs at a sort of magic realism. It's as if McEwan found the prospect of exploring the ramifications of the novel's central event so harrowing that he felt compelled to add numerous unconvincing bits of business to obscure and siphon off the horror.

Saturday and Solar
In Saturday, middle-aged neurosurgeon Henry Perowne spends his day preparing for a family dinner. His progress is set against the backdrop of a massive demonstration against the war in Iraq, and his effort to avoid said demonstration leads to a chance encounter that will have dramatic repercussions for him and for those he loves.

Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a breathtakingly self absorbed physicist who is coasting through life on the faded glory of the Nobel Prize he won 20 years prior. A serial philanderer, he takes ruthless advantage of a tragic accident and finds himself navigating the waters of climate science and sustainable energy.

Both novels' protagonists prove difficult to like. This presents a greater problem for Saturday, as Henry is meant to evince our sympathy as he wrestles with his ambivalence and confusion regarding the Iraq War, his family, his co-workers, and his neighborhood. Alas, he comes of as smug and narrow for much of the novel's duration. Michael is clearly designed to be far less sympathetic. He is a vehicle for comedy and satire. The problem is that the comedy falls flat and the satire feels strained and shallow. These novels represent the least of McEwan's oeuvre.


So that's one man's opinion. But what did the critics think of Solar? And did Amsterdam really deserve that Booker after all? By clicking below you can find an aggregated score for the critical consensus on these and other recent Ian McEwan books, I am sure you will be surprised.

If you want to know what the critics think of his latest novel, Sweet Tooth and make a wise decision before buying the book, here it is:

And don't' forget to look for the scores on other recent bestsellers across a wide variety of genres.

Then you can come back here and leave a comment telling me why I'm a genius with a refreshingly nuanced view of the literary arts or a moron who may in fact be functionally illiterate. Don't tell me that sounds like anything but a valuable use of your time.