Holding onto a sense of self in a fractured world
When I initially read this, on publication, I was fascinated to see how much this book polarised readers, – including committed McEwan admirers.
The book stayed with me for some time, and continued to play over some of its themes – I think it, and reactions to it, say a lot about the unsettled, sometimes despairing times we live in.
The Victorians liked their heroes and heroines to be clear-cut and inspirational, and indeed could accept them as ‘real’. Post a century of 2 world wars, post Freud, post a global communications revolution that makes us all so much more aware of everything – including our personal and our collective atrocities – and of course post 9/11, we have lost our innocence.
These days we focus more on the flaws in human nature. But if those ‘flaws’ exist – as they certainly do – how do we perceive them as flaws unless we are judging them against the idea of a ‘finer’ sense of humanity. Flaws and fineness exist side by side, and are equally real. If wicked and unlovely people exist (as they do) then so must inspiring people – both in fiction as well as in ‘reality’
I find the central character, Perowne – and his family, actually much more like most of us, much more ‘ordinary’ (despite the fact that most of us are not wealthy neurosurgeons with fabulously gifted artistic children) than Baxter. Ordinary in that there is a struggle, always, to remain ‘human’ and hold onto a sense of humanity, whilst living in what McEwan calls ‘a community of anxiety’
And what holds us to our sense of humanness is surely, first of all familial bonds, the love we give and get from those closest to us – we define and refine ourselves in relationship – and then, spreading outwards, our ability to perceive humanity in each other, friends, acquaintances and even strangers – who we can perceive as being ‘like us’, having the same needs, doubts, fears, joys. And also our passions, our interests, our creativity can give us a transcendence, can make us feel aware, alive, present – that’s why the argued over brain surgery, musical, squash match interludes work for me. I’ve never played squash in my life, but found McEwan’s use of this to explore the mind of his character worked.
For a book where ‘nothing’ happened for a good 3/4 of its length, I was surprised how nerve-wracked and anxious the book made me feel, and think that this really illustrated something about the fragility of the time we live in. Whatever the lovely melody of Perowne’s day was about, it was playing itself out against the possibility, all the time, of a widespread destruction, and of course, as occurred later, the possibility of a more personal apocalypse.
Like several readers, I had an initial ‘oh, come on!’ reaction at the ‘salvation through poetry’ moment, but then ended up questioning my response, because, after all any of us who respond strongly, sometimes astonishingly so to poetry, music, art, drama, literature, film etc etc DO have moments in our lives when actually we’ve been shocked, surprised and transformed by ‘something’ which changes the way we see the world, for ever. That is what art is about, surely. So what does it say if I can accept MY ability to have these epiphanies, but not that a petty criminal can!
Love or loathe it, it certainly isn’t wallpaper!