Book Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (published by Jonathan Cape)

There are times during The Children Act when Ian McEwan seemed to be trying to out Ian McEwan himself, such was his commitment to imagining his now familiar to the-point-of-parody urban middle class life. There are a whole heap of McEwanisms in this, his 13th novel. Here he is writing about a Saturday morning in his protagonist Fiona Maye’s house, where the coffee is: “strong, in tall white thin-lipped cups, filtered from high-grade Colombian beans, with warmed, not hot milk” accompanied by “warmed pains aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit Street”.

It all sounds blissfully lovely and yet we all know high grade coffee beans can’t buy you happiness, especially in an Ian McEwan books where a luxurious lifestyle masks simmering violence, cruelty and malice. But still, an Ian McEwan drinking game would be a dangerous activity; downing a shot of fine Scotch every time the author mentioned warm pastries, marbled kitchen surfaces, Bach, the fine cut of the protagonist’s coat, would render you incapable of reading beyond page 50.

I mock out of love, although perhaps rather more for McEwan’s back catalogue than this novel that feels strangely incomplete and slight – and not just in size. It’s a short, sharp novel written in McEwan’s trademark briskness that teeters on the brink of something great, but never quite reaches the heights of his other novels.

The Children Act takes us back to the McEwan land of Saturday. This time the wildly successful middle class professional who has the sharp edges of their intellect and ambition smoothed by an enjoyment of the arts (especially classical music) and an evening glass of fine wine is High Court judge, Fiona Maye.

Fiona works in the family division, playing the referee between warring parents in custody battles and hospitals desperate to save children with treatment their parents’ religions forbid them to use. Her latest case is a matter of urgency; Adam Henry, a 17 year-old boy – months from his 18th birthday – is suffering with leukaemia and needs a blood transfusion to help save his life. He is – just – too young to make the decision himself and his Jehovah’s Witness parents won’t give their consent to a procedure that is against the religion’s doctrine. Wobbling on the cusp of a decision, Fiona visits Adam to try to fully understand him and his wishes. Overseen by a social worker, their meeting over Adam’s hospital bed, ends with him playing Benjamin Britten’s composition of the Yeats’ poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ scratchily on his violin while she sings the mournful lyrics.

Adam is a sad, troubled figure – a bright, intelligent boy with a man’s brain and a child’s enthusiasm that blurs into naivety. Through Fiona’s eyes he is described as beautiful, but I don’t think it’s so much his physical beauty she sees, but his vulnerability, his youth, his future.

Fiona Maye is a likable and compelling character. She’s controlled and impenetrable in many ways, but McEwan allows a warmth to emanate from her that is mostly told through her love of music (classical) and poetry (Yeats). McEwan can conjure characters in few words, and you can almost hear the bristle of Fiona’s natural sheer tights as she walks purposely through Gray’s Inn Square, briefcase in hand.

Bubbling away behind her courtroom dramas, is her own drama. Fiona Maye is – and we’re encouraged to believe this is important in the context of her job – childless and until five minutes before the novel begins in a seemingly happy marriage to Jack. The novel opens with Jack telling her that he wants to have one last fling, his chosen accomplice a 28-year-old statistician with whom he works. His demands are appalling and his behaviour worse, even walking out the door with his suitcase without saying goodbye to his wife. That he comes crawling back is no surprise, although I’d have rather Fiona kneed him in the groin rather than merely offering him her frosty shoulder. But the description of the sad dance the two of them do after his return is typically vivid in that brilliant way McEwan has of writing about the tiny sadnesses that infect our lives.

The legal cases, however, are far more gripping even if McEwan has to frantically shift many plot pawns into position in order to get his checkmate ending. It’s not that the ending feels wrong, but it falls rather flat after a frantic build up that seemed to point to a high-voltage conclusion. Perhaps it’s better this way (see Amsterdam for evidence of McEwan pressing the atomic ending button), but I felt as if I’d barely got to know Fiona and Adam in this slight story that didn’t quite allow either of them to capture my imagination.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Cement Garden, The Vaults

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

 The Vault Festival is an eclectic six-week programme of arts and entertainment at the underground arts centre, Vaults, in the bowels of Waterloo.

This year’s flagship productions are an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, and this, Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, brought to the stage for the first time.

The Cement Garden is a coming of age tale with a dark heart, set in the stifling heat of the summer of 1976. On the cusp of 15, Jack is the second of four children with an inappropriately rampant crush on his beautiful older sister, Julie. The intensity between the pair is compounded when first their father, then their mother dies and, in a bid to avoid foster care, they bury her in a block of cement in the cellar. As you do.

The two of them are left alone to play screwed-up-families with their younger sister Sue (Georgia Clarke-Day) and five-year-old brother Tom. Unrestrained by adults and society’s rules, Jack and Julie start to inhabit their new roles as “mum and dad” a little too well over the long summer holiday.

Young Tom is represented by a manky rag doll manipulated and voiced by David Annen. At first this seemed like an unnecessary affectation, the sort of off-beat idea that can blight more experimental theatre. But it worked well and the doll soon and seamlessly become part of the family. Less distracting than a child actor’s presence would have been, you believed in Tom’s innocence and his confusion as his world crumbled.

The Vault’s Library space could have been built to stage a play as disturbing and claustrophobic as The Cement Garden. The unusual two storey space under Waterloo’s train tracks is certainly made good use of, even if the resulting set is more imaginative and interesting than practical. Perched on wooden benches in the middle of the long ‘stage’, there were several blind spots, but since I spend most of my theatre trips in the gods, behind a pillar or flush up against the stage, I didn’t find this view as much as a problem as some might. Still the unusual set up is a little distracting and the amount of space the actors are required to cover meant some frantic rushing around that was at odds with the languid feel of the original novel.

Talking of the book, knowing the story well does blunt the sharp edges of the play. With McEwan’s taunt writing diluted down to its bare essence, the element of surprise becomes greater. But the young cast are excellent and bring a real feeling of suspense and foreboding. Ruby Bentall as the practical, inscrutable Julie and BAFTA Rising Star nominee George MacKay as Jack are particularly brilliant as the two leads and, while the original tension of the novel has got a little lost in its transition to this dark, expansive underground space, they deliver powerful performances that leave you a little winded as the lights come on.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

It’s easy to believe we get to read, to hear and to see the very best, that only the skimmed off brilliance is left as the cultural entails sink into oblivion. But you only have to look back at history and then around you at the piles of candy-floss coloured novels stacked on supermarket shelves to know that talent doesn’t always win out. Luck and circumstances have as much an impact on so many cultural success stories as talent – too often the book, the song, the painting just don’t chime with the zeitgeist.

Stoner by John Williams was published in 1965 to a reaction that hasn’t, as far as I know, been recorded. A tutor in literature and the craft of writing at the University of Denver, Stoner was Williams’ third novel (he also had a book of poetry published in 1949). Stoner may or may not have won the hearts of the critics in his own time, but it certainly didn’t capture the imagination  of his contemporaries or storm the New York Times book chart and the novel slipped into the great book perjury in the sky only to be resurrected by Ian McEwan who name checked it in a Radio 4 show earlier this year, describing it as a “beautiful novel… a marvellous discovery for everyone who loves literature”. As one of the literary world’s few superstars, McEwan’s rapturous praise got his fans and the larger publishing world very excited, and the book was republished by Vintage weeks later to ride this belated enthusiasm.

The book is about the life of a man named William Stoner, the son of a farmer who discovers Shakespeare during supplementary studies in literature taught by the enigmatic Archer Sloane while reading agriculture at the University of Columbia. Stoner’s slow understanding of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”) changes his life forever, as he is finally brought to life by literature, admittedly in his own unassuming way.

Stoner’s new found thirst for literature leads him from student to teacher at the same university, where he attempts to pass on his own love and enthusiasm for the subject to non-plussed adolescents. When he doesn’t have his nose in a book, he gets married to the wrong woman, has a daughter, an affair and a career-damaging fallout with another university lecturer. And, that’s pretty much it.

Although, it’s so much more than that. This man’s quiet life is taken to new heights by the beauty of Williams’ writing and his understanding of the human condition. He’s able to fill the pages with waves of emotion and so much heart while saying very little. There’s a terrible sadness that runs through Stoner, the novel and Stoner the man, that is truly heartbreaking in its ordinariness. It’s easy to see why McEwan is a fan, there’s the same sparseness and economy of words that evoke a world more fully than many who try much harder; a coldness and detachment that creates so much heat and emotion. 

If there’s a fault with Stoner, it lies with the depiction of his wife Edith, a battle axe of the kind we’ve seen so many times before – running round the house with a metaphorical rolling pin, ruining her poor husband’s life. I was uneasy with her, and didn’t know whether I was meant to read her as a pinafored-tyrant, or, as I choose to view her, as a victim of her era, her sex and her class. She is as much a pawn in this game of life as Stoner is, more so in fact – as a man he holds enough power to stamp on Edith’s dreams, to whisk her off into matrimonial hell just as she was due to embark on a tour of Europe with her aunt. To me, Edith was clearly suffering from depression that grew worse after the birth of their daughter, the unfortunate Grace who didn’t stand a chance between her mentally ill mother and her mute, emotionally detached father. They are none of them winners. 

Stoner is a flawed man, an unexciting man, but one whose story is as thrilling as James Bond’s thanks to Williams’ perfect prose. McEwan was absolutely right to describe it as a “marvellous discovery” for people who love reading; if books make up the fabric of who you are, it’s such a treat to see that same experience recreated in novels. To be reading about the joys of reading is like some kind of meta-warm word bath. 

 by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan published by Vintage

If I was forced, at pain of being thwacked over the head with a hardback copy of War and Peace, to name my favourite contemporary author, I would say Ian McEwan.

I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, when I picked up a copy of The Cement Garden, attracted by a tale of messed-up and cooped-up adolescents whose lives were ALMOST as depressing as mine. What I was probably hoping for was a British Flowers In The Attic, what I got was far better; darker and more disturbing, less sensational, more emotional, but stripped of any sugary sentimentality.

As I came to discover, McEwan’s powers lie in crisp, sharp prose, with not a mis-placed word. Like all great authors he can say more in a sentence than lesser writers can in a chapter. He never gets into a tangle of adjectives or sounds like he’s hurling long words at the reader in attempt to upstage you.

From The Cement Garden, I entered the even murkier, more sinister worlds of McEwan’s first two published works, both collections of short stories – First Love, Last Rites and In Between The Sheets. These were strange worlds, where women had relationships with orang-u-tans and fathers and daughters fought for survival in post-apocalyptic nightmare where lone tower blocks survived like cement cockroaches. McEwan’s late ’70s world made J.G. Ballard‘s look like an Ikea ad.

Over time McEwan’s literary landscapes slowly shifted from shadowy suburbia and grubby bedsit land to the professional urban middle class and love across the class divide in upper crust country piles. But while his protagonists moved up the class ladder and his settings became more aesthetically pleasing, there was still a dark heart at their core, pumping poison through Sunday supplement lives.

But my love affair with McEwan’s novels hit a speed bump with his 1998 novel Amsterdam. I laboured over it for weeks and over the years, as the memory of it became fuzzy, I came to hate it even more. I would tell people to read him, but beg them to skip his Booker prize winning novel. Was it reverse snobbery? Perhaps, I was studying for an English degree at the time and, like a typically smug undergrad, loved dismissing huge swathes of critically acclaimed works, much like McEwan’s hero in Sweet Tooth.

As the years passed the book became a blur of expensive red wine, white carpets and two middle aged men jabbing accusatory fingers at each other. Beyond that, I couldn’t remember much, the plot was lost to me completely, and as I continued to read and enjoy McEwan’s books (except Saturday, which I also dislike and which I should also revisit) I wondered what it was I so despised about Amsterdam.

So I went back and read it. And gobbled it up in one weekend. Because, of course, it’s great. Sure, there’s a rambling pile in north London with a wine cellar stuffed with expensive Beaujolais, but it’s a house whose heart’s been ripped out of it, where the composer, Clive Linley lives with his fading past, shuffling between unloved rooms amidst a pile of discarded scores and dirty wine glasses. Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Clive’s best friend, reached his professional apex through sheer luck and his ability to slip through life unnoticed. They are not men to envy, and they are certainly not mocking you with their (un)fabulous lives.

The novel opens with a funeral, Clive and Vernon standing in the rain, remembering the coffin’s occupant, their former lover Molly Lane. Molly isn’t the only thing they have in common: Clive and Vernon are also united by a hatred for her most recent lover Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary, a man who Molly’s husband, George, would also like to see destroyed. This rain-soaked meeting sparks a chain of events that set off a deadly cocktail of grief, fear, hatred, passion and jealousy.

In other author’s hands, Amsterdam would have been an hysterical thriller, racing along at speed and hitting the odd plot-hole along the way. But McEwan writes with a precision that hides the true horror until it confronts you with its steely honesty. Seemingly inconsequential, microscopic moments that writers have a tendency to smother in heavy-handed SYMBOLISM, those spots in time that turn the whole story on its head, are told with less fuss than the description of the wine Clive chooses for dinner. These are the moments that drive the story to towards its fatal end, but it’s not until later that we – like the characters – come to understand the consequences.

I’m currently finding my way through Barbara Kingsolver‘s overblown Flight Behaviour and missing McEwan’s sharp prose. When I’ve crawled my way to the end, I’ll need to dig out my copy of Saturday and see if the neurosurgeon and his marble staircase can win me over this time.

by Suzanne Elliott