Ian McEwan


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 27, 2005)

"It troubles him to consider the powerful currents and fine-tuning that alter fates, the close and distant influences, the accidents of character and circumstance that cause one young woman in Paris to be packing her weekend bag with the bound proof of her first volume of poems before catching the train to a welcoming home in London, and another young woman of the same age to be led away by a wheedling boy to a moment's chemical bliss that will bind her as tightly to her misery as an opiate to its mu receptors."

In the middle of the night, Henry Perowne, a 48-year-old neurosurgeon awakens for no apparent reason. Looking out the window, he sees what he thinks, at first, is the Hale-Bopp meteor, but the object brightens, moves faster, and comes streaking through the skies at low altitude—not a meteor, but a plane on fire, apparently crashing on its approach to Heathrow.

In intensely realized descriptions, Henry's reaction to this event, along with the more mundane events of his daily life, come vividly alive, drawing in the reader who shares the most intimate aspects of Henry's existence. From his awakening in the early morning hours through the end of this long and trying Saturday, Henry's life is laid bare—every action, thought, and question about life, fate, and destiny is articulated as Henry struggles to make sense of his good life and, more importantly, to see it in a philosophical context.

Henry is happily married to Rosalind, a lawyer for a newspaper, whose life he saved through emergency surgery when she was nineteen. They have two children, Theo, an 18-year-old blues musician, and Daisy, an aspiring poet whose first book is about to be published, with whom they share a relationship of mutual respect. All in all, the Perownes are a happy family whose members support each other, the children seeking creative outlets, while Henry is firmly grounded in reality and science. He has come to believe, however, that "there has to be more to life than merely saving lives." Though he has willingly accepted the discipline and responsibility of a medical career, "he's still young enough to yearn for the unpredictable and unrestrained, and old enough to know the chances are narrowing." Daisy has found through her poetry, and Theo has found in the blues, "not melancholy, but a strange and worldly joy," a spontaneity of feeling different from anything Henry has ever known. He yearns to find a "coherent world, everything fitting at last."

As the day progresses, Henry fixates on the plane accident and wonders about possible terrorism and the imminent war with Iraq. He has an altercation with a thug and two accomplices after a minor traffic accident, and he plays a ferocious game of squash with the anesthesiologist who is his partner. A massive anti-war protest ratchets up the tension by bringing traffic throughout the city to a virtual halt.

Throughout these events, Henry contemplates his relationships with the world at large. Having rejected religion at a young age, he finds some comfort in the conclusions of Darwin, who connects all life in a continuum in which he sees himself a part. He muses about inherited characteristics, as he reminisces about his parents and visits his senile mother; makes comments about Rosalind's parents, including her crotchety father, who is a poet and inspiration to Daisy; and thinks of his own children, the directions they are taking, and the characteristics linking them emotionally to him and Rosalind. For each of these connections, however, he also sees contrasts in the world around him, people whose lives have been different simply because of "the currents that alter fate"--a young patient whose hostility has alienated her from virtually everyone, an archaeologist arrested and tortured in Iraq, and the young man with whom he has an altercation who shows all the symptoms of Huntington's chorea.

Henry's interior "action" and his philosophical musings take a back seat to harsh reality when the Perowne home is invaded near the end of the day as the family gathers for Daisy's homecoming from Paris. Henry faces a major turning point, as do other members of the family, and in a very satisfying ending, he finds his world becoming more "coherent."

With its intense focus on Henry's character and the contemporary society of which he is a part, this novel is more introspective than Atonement and far less dependent upon a plot-based excitement than Enduring Love. Though the climax is loaded with menace and is executed with high drama, the events are less significant than Henry's reactions to them. In their inevitability, however, they become part of the continuum that Darwin wrote about, the natural result of one event permanently influencing another, which Henry has been contemplating since the beginning of the novel. A beautifully integrated novel in which every detail adds to the complex characterizations and themes, this is Ian McEwan's most thoughtful novel to date, a wonderful meditation on individuals and culture, connection and disconnection, and the randomness of "the currents that alter fate."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 334 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Saturday at Doubleday.com

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(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 19, 2003)

Though this book is of only average length, it has the feel of a big family saga, so completely does McEwan delve into the consciousness of his main characters as they attempt to cope with the long-term repercussions of a "crime" committed by a Briony Tallis, a naïve 13-year-old with a "controlling demon."

Read excerptBriony's "wish for a harmonious, organised world denie[s] her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing," so it is doubly ironic that her attempt to "fix" what she sees as wrongdoing involving her sister and Robbie Turner, a childhood friend, becomes, in itself, a wrongdoing, one she feels compelled to deny and for which she will eventually attempt to atone.

Opening the novel in 1935, McEwan creates an intense, edgy, and almost claustrophobic mood. England is on the brink of war; Briony, a budding writer, is on the edge of adolescence; her newly graduated sister Cecilia is thinking of her future life; and Robbie is about to start medical school.

The summer is unusually hot. Troubled young cousins have arrived because their parents are on the verge of divorce; Briony's mother is suffering from migraines; her father is "away," working for the government; her adored brother Leon and a friend have arrived from Cambridge; and Briony, an "almost only child," with a hypersensitive imagination, finds her world threatened.

Step by step, McEwan leads his characters to disaster, each individual action and misstep simple, explainable, and logical. The engaged reader sees numerous dramatic ironies and waits for everything to snap. When Briony finally commits her long-foreshadowed "crime," the results are cataclysmic, and the world, as they know it, ends for several characters.

Giving depth to his themes of truth, justice, honesty, guilt and innocence, and punishment and atonement, McEwan uses shifting points of view and an extended time frame. Part I is Briony's. In Part II, five years after the crime, Robbie, now a footsoldier retreating from the French countryside to Dunkirk, continues the same themes, seeing the crimes of war, not only between the combatants but against civilians and, at Dunkirk, by the Brits against each other.

In Part III, Briony, atoning for her earlier crime by working as a student nurse, rather than studying to be a writer, brings the past and present together, tending the casualties of war. The ending takes place in 1999, at her 77th birthday party.

This is a totally absorbing, fully developed novel, the kind one always yearns for and so rarely finds! The characters, the atmosphere, the lush descriptions, the sensitively treated themes, the intriguing and unusual plot, and the rare entrée into the mind of a writer, both Briony and McEwan, give this novel a fascination few others achieve. It's hard to put this one down!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 870 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Atonement at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Ian MeEwanIan McEwan was born in 1948 in Aldershot, England and spent his childhood in Singapore and North Africa where his father - a soldier - was posted. He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970. While completing his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, he took a creative writing course taught by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.

He began writing short stories in the early 1970s for inclusion in literary journals such as American Review and Transatlantic Review. The eight stories making up his first book, First Love,Last Rites, published in 1975, won a Somerset Maugham Award in the following year. In 1978 after the publication of another book of short stories, In Between the Sheets, McEwan published his first novel, The Cement Garden.

Since then he has written several plays, novels, motion picture screenplays and scripts for television, one of which, Solid Geometry, was notorious for having been banned by the BBC in 1979 at an advanced stage of production. Another of his novels, The Child in Time, won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction in 1987. Amsterdam won the 1998 Booker Prize.

Atonement won the WH Smith 2002 Literary Awards and won the 2002 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award. It also shortlisted for both the 2001 Booker Prize and 2001 Whitbread Book Award.

He lives in London where he is currently busy writing.

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