I’ve written here about my miserable realisation I wouldn’t read more than a couple of thousand books in my lifetime, if I really went for it. I thus struggle to read more than one or two books by any author because there are so many more authors to read. How could I read another Philip K Dick while I’ve not yet read The Odyssey?
Nevertheless, I keep returning with relish to Ian McEwan. With The Children Act I delight once again in his sublime prose, but also the gossamer feel of the stories. From The Child In Time, through Atonement, to On Chesil Beach he balances whole lives on the point of a pin, a moment in time, fates curling away like skin through a peeler from their previous trajectories. Whether it’s *that* moment in On Chesil Beach or the ‘next moment he’s vanished’ horror of The Child In Time, the glance between Joe and Jed in Enduring Love or, now, The Children Act, where a boy’s life is determined by a song and a kiss, McEwan revels in the delicate nudge of circumstance, a butterfly effect culminating in dragging great anchors through the deeps of his characters.
I’m always in awe of his mastery of the form, an ability to surf entire lives in a page, and yet also find the simplest, most right words to depict particular events. Early on, High Court judge Fiona Kaye is facing her husband’s accusation that she is frigid:
“‘It’s been seven weeks and a day. Are you honestly content with that?’…Seven weeks and a day also had a medieval ring, like a sentence handed down from an old Court of Assize.”
With characteristic efficiency McEwan tells us a lot about Kaye’s husband from his noting their lack of sex to the day, as opposed to a more vague ‘It’s been weeks’. But, though it’s the third person narrator, the thought that is triggered by this is perfectly right for Fiona herself, being a judge, McEwan limiting himself to the allusions that would keep with the character herself.
His sentences are pared down to their essence, there is no fat. The power comes from what he chooses to describe with those sentences. Near the end, as Kaye plays a duet with a colleague at a party, McEwan applies a very gentle pressure to the moments, the most delicate of hints that there is a wrong coming, barely more than a change in the air, a taste in the mouth. It’s all that’s needed to hold you to the pages as the end nears, your immersion in the moment of the events playing out is subconsciously preparing, anticipating a payoff.
The novel is short, deceptively deep: Kaye, the High Court judge, is ruling on a Jehovah’s Witness, a minor, refusing a blood transfusion without which he would die, the challenge for Kaye resting on an assessment of his ‘Gillick’ competence, his only being three months from eighteen complicating the judgement. It sits in parallel with Kaye’s confrontation of her husband’s marital frustration and infidelity. His journey is practically off camera, and thus two dimensional, pathetic even. She is the lens for the breakdown, for the ebb and flow of hate and annoyance, despair and longing that the threat of the end of their marriage triggers. Everything about her feelings and the gaps and interconnects between her and her husband, the inching through a stalemate back to something more, feels right, feels solid. It’s only because I try to write books myself that I know how this seemingly effortless ‘rightness’ is far, far from effortless. The true quality of his work lies in how brilliantly and fully realised his characters are.
And so, inspired, I go back to my own characters; girls, boys, demons, angels and soldiers, begging to be let out of cages drawn with my less artful pen.