Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 December 2017
Since 2000, Ian McEwan has published six novels: Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2007), Solar (2010), Sweet Tooth (2012) and The Children Act (2014). To separate off this body of work from his previous publications is inevitably somewhat arbitrary; nevertheless, especially considering McEwan's frequently close involvement with historical events, it can fairly be suggested that these novels represent a sustained attempt to refract, as through a many-sided prism, some of the key concerns of the twenty-first century, as well as some of the major themes which have reverberated through his work since the days of First Love, Last Rites (1975), The Cement Garden and In Between the Sheets (both 1978).
The theme on which I want to concentrate here is the characterisation of the past by lies and deceptions. These are often not intentional lies: they are not told, or enacted, with the express purpose of deception, but their texture is slippery, they participate in a more general unreliability of language, and here surely lies one of the crucial paradoxes of McEwan's work: that a writing so precise, so elegantly textured, so minutely detailed, so regularly exquisite in its dealings with inner states, should simultaneously be devoted to an exposition of how language itself has continually distorting effects. As in Edgar Allan Poe's ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1845), the hiding place is in plain sight; but also plain sight itself has its hiding places, it can be revisited, rewritten, the word, whether spoken or written, is never stable, it is only an attempt to make still those floods of language and history which are continually restless: like the pebbles washing up on the shore of Chesil Beach.
Can writing, McEwan asks, put history ‘straight’ in some way, or does it serve only further to confound those moments in the past which continue to set the parameters for the stories we tell ourselves in the present? Perhaps equally important is the question as to whether such writing can actually produce or encourage real communication, or whether it is permanently in-turned, self-justifying: why do we need to tell stories in the first place if not to turn the world into a place in which we can live, which requires that the world accepts, at least to a degree, the version of it which will allow us to flourish; or, at least, to survive?