(Zomerlezen #2)

From Seville we drove south, in the direction of the sea. We found a small mountain village called Vejer de la Frontera, one of the white villages Andalucia is famous for. The addition 'de la Frontera' you meet a lot around there. It recalls the time when the area formed the border of the Spanish kingdom and fortified towns like Vejer were guarding the frontier.
Despite that somewhat grim-sounding past Vejer is actually a very beautiful place, with narrow, winding streets that can bring you up to the hilltop-castle or to hidden churches and little squares. The Spanish make it a point of honour to drive their dented cars all the way up the hill, even if it requires going back and forth ten times to round a tight corner; walking is for tourists.
Nothing wrong with being a tourist, though. You can escape the ever-windy lanes of Vejer and rest at the beaches of Los Caños de Meca or Conil de la Frontera. For my first real beach book of this holiday I'd selected Ian McEwan's latest,
The children act. A terrible choice in hindsight, to be honest. To be at the beach the whole day, blocking out the sun with your book, but mainly staring at the same page for most of the time seems like an unnecessary waste of effort. Fortunately, back in our Vejer appartment I was able to make better progress.
The trouble with
The children act is, not only is it not a beach book, I don't think it's a summer book at all. The cover already looks quite bleak, during most of the scenes it seems to rain constantly and the story is hardly cheerful. A middle-aged woman judge has to decide whether or not an underage teenager with a deadly but treatable disease should be forced to take treatment when he refuses to do so for religious reasons. The judge is a highly analytical workaholic, one of the best judges in her field of family law, but she doesn't excel on the emotional level, whereas the boy is an intelligent, charming young adult who plays music and writes poetry. Together they form an interesting pair of antagonists.
Back in the moderate climate of Holland I still struggle with
The children act. Such a well-structured, thoughtful book, that doesn't forget to tell an exciting story as well, and yet it still leaves me cold somehow. Was it the wrong time and the wrong place to read it? Certainly. Or was it something I noticed before in some of McEwan's books: they can be expertly crafted works of art, but they don't breathe enough, they stay distant and don't drag me in the way I would like to. I can't help but see The children act for the tight, well-tuned piece of clockwork that McEwan made it to be.
Still, making such a moral story into a gripping little novel is quite an extraordinary achievement.
The children act constantly asks the question 'What is the right thing to do?' and, thereby, forces you to think about what you would do in the same circumstances. You'll have to think on an intellectual ánd on an emphatic level to come to grips with this book and, since we each do so in our own personal way, talking about The children act with other people is highly recommended. Perhaps I'm just the wrong reader for this one, too young to care for the judge's predicaments and too old to have enough patience with the boy's teenage dramatics. Or, perhaps I enjoyed the next book on our holiday too much.

5 August 2015

Vintage Books, 2015
Originally published in 2014
216 pages

Nederlandse editie: De kinderwet, De Harmonie, 2014. Vertaald door Rien Verhoef. 


It’s not the new Ian McEwan anymore, but his 2012 novel Sweet tooth kept beckoning to me, irresistibly in the end. It came highly recommended at the time and I’d even tried out a chapter or two, although for some strange reason I put it aside again quickly. I tried Sweet tooth again in 2014 and this time around I couldn’t resist its charm. It’s a Cold War spy novel of the John le Carré school, but then also about books and writers. Quite a fortunate match actually. I was hooked from the first paragraph:

'My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.'

Young Serena Frome, in her final year at Cambridge, gets introduced into the spy game by one of her professors. While she tells her parents she has found a respectable job at the Department of Health and Social Security she secretly starts working for the British Security Service MI5. It’s the beginning of the Seventies and women are slowly but grudgingly accepted into the world of espionage. Serena gets a ‘soft’ assignment: she has to recruit a young British writer for a special propaganda program against the Soviets. Or, in other words, charm him into working for ‘our’ cause, unknowingly of course. At this task Serena succeeds quite admirably, in fact she and the writer (in whom we might recognize some aspects of the young Ian McEwan) quickly fall in love. Things start getting confused as Serena realizes she may have gone in too deep into this whole spy thing.

As could be expected McEwan twists his readers around a few times before he changes everything one last time at the end. It’s the sort of ending that changes your perspective on what you’ve just read considerably, a trick that can easily alienate a reader. Fortunately, it doesn’t alienate you, it charms you. Could you have seen this coming? You might have. Did I? Of course not. It’s all quite witty. This is why I read Ian McEwan: for his superbly understated style and the tight hold he has on his readers. Throughout his books he has you exactly where he wants you, a control I imagine many a thriller author will be jealous of. It makes for comfort reading on a literary level.

After some years without any Ian McEwan novel it felt good to be back. It turns out I just like everything he writes. That’s a comforting thought. Especially with a fresh McEwan in the shops right now, called The children act. I can’t wait for the paperback to come out.

28 December 2014

Vintage Books, 2013
Originally published in 2012
374 pages

Comments (2)

A free reading copy from Linnaeus and the bestselling English novel of the moment; I had to read it. I read the first part in one rush, up unto the accidental death scene, and then I didn't want to continue. Took me a week to come back to it again and then I finished almost in one go. In other words, interesting plot (as usual) and good language (as usual), but this one didn't have such a strong underlying pulse as Saturday, which it resembles most. A good read, but a mediocre McEwan, unless my opinion gathers some strength with age, something that happens with reading highly contemporary books. We'll see.

30 March 2010

Jonathan Cape, 2010


A good novella, McEwan's latest. Very nicely written, as it smoothly flows from one perspective to the other. The plot is quite moving, although the (somewhat redundant) final part reads otherwise. Again, like Roth, nothing brilliant, but glad to have read it.

11 November 2008


Bought it in Salzburg because The Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy started to bore me. Luckily so, Saturday was a lot more interesting. Ever since reading (and seeing) Atonement McEwan has captured my attention. Saturday certainly lived up to expection. It's contemporary, but not annoyingly so and thoughtful, while still exciting qua plot. The guy just knows how to write a good novel. A fourth McEwan novel should not be a punishment; maybe Amsterdam or The Cement garden?

17 June 2008

Vintage, 2006
Originally published 2005

Comments (1)

A well-written little book. It reads very smoothly, with calm and lyric prose and meanders towards a disturbing ending. Reminds me a littly of Roald Dahl's short stories. Nice people, but things get a little strange after a while. McEwan keeps it up, so after Atonement and this one I'm sure more will follow.

19 November 2007

Vintage, 2000
Originally published 1981


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