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In praise of the writings of Ian McEwan (Part 1)

In praise of the writings of Ian McEwan (Part 1)

With Ian McEwan’s latest novel Nutshell, written from a narrative perspective unlike any other – an unborn baby in a womb, having been released on 1st September I thought it might be appropriate to write an appraisal of his work. I must concede that I haven’t read anywhere near everything he has written (Nutshell is his fourteenth novel – and he has also written several collections of short stories, plays, screenplays and children’s fiction). However, I feel I have read enough of his work to have an overall sense of his style and talents as a writer.


The first thing to say about his writing and what makes it so engaging is McEwan’s meticulous attention to detail and research. In preparation for writing Saturday in which his main character Perowne is a neuro-surgeon, McEwan apparently shadowed a real neuro-surgeon in London for about two years. This really shows in the novel when, reflecting the mind of his protagonist from a third-person perspective, he is describing and explaining certain operations to the reader which Perowne has performed during his working day:


“The culmination of today’s list was the removal of a pilocytic astrocytoma from a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl […] the tumour was best reached through the back of the head, by an infratentorial supracerebellar route, with the anaesthetised patient in a sitting position.”


In fact, not only are they convincing; they are somehow also some of the most interesting and riveting parts of the novel (and not because the rest of Saturday is so boring). Similarly, for what is probably his most famous work Atonement McEwan went to the historians at the Imperial War Museum in London so as to make his depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk during the Second World War historically accurate.


Another aspect of McEwan’s work which makes it stand out is his focus upon the protagonist’s profession in many of his novels. Most importantly, he shows how the nature of their work tints the way in which they perceive things and how they think. The main character in Enduring Love, Joe Rose, is a science journalist and right from the beginning we see how his perception of the world is framed by his scientific knowledge whilst he is waiting for his wife at an airport:


“If one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed, then a few minutes by the arrivals gate in Heathrow’s Terminal Four should suffice. I saw the same joy, the same uncontrollable smiles in the faces of a Nigerian earth mama, a thin-lipped Scottish granny and a pale, correct Japanese businessman as they wheeled their trolleys in and recognised a figure in the expectant crowd. Observing human variety can give pleasure, but so too could human sameness.”


Other people waiting in Heathrow would probably have noted the diversity of the people arriving at the terminal. Rose, as a man of science, sees through the difference to note a universal similarity. In Enduring Love our sense of the impact of the protagonist’s profession on his psyche is especially pronounced as we ourselves view the narrative from his perspective in first-person.  


Image: Flaming Ferrari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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