By: Ian McEwan
On a chilly February day two old friends meet in the throng outside a crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly’s lovers in the days before they reached their current eminence — Clive as Britain’s most successful modern composer, Vernon as editor of the broadsheet The Judge. But gorgeous, feisty Molly had other lovers too, notably Julian Garmony, the Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger poised to be the next prime minister. What happens in the aftermath of her funeral has a profound and shocking effect on all her lovers’ lives, and erupts in the most purely enjoyable fiction Ian McEwan has ever written.
This book has been on my want-to-read list for a very long time, probably around the time that I finished reading his book Atonement (which I absolutely loved to pieces; you can read my highly spoilerish review over here). I finally got my hands on it last week and read it last night; it’s a slim volume and I decided not to try updating my website layout so I just delved into the novel in one go. Spoilers ahoy!
Once again, McEwan has managed to draw me into his stories with his prose. Opening with the funeral of Molly Lane, he manages to make a simple conversation between two ex-lovers of Molly’s into a very intriguing scene of dialogue and sentiment. I don’t believe I mentioned it in my my review of Atonement but McEwan has a way with words; he knows precisely what word to use to describe each movement, each thought that his character makes and does and it’s something that has been inspiring and amazing about him in my opinion. It’s poetic and human but it can also be detached and observant, something that I’m still trying to wrap my head around with this piece in particular but it was a pleasure to read nonetheless.
There’s a lot of themes running through this novel: companionship/friendship, death, euthanasia, politics, creativity and the productivity and contribution of one’s life to the world. But the main theme that comes out, particularly between Clive and Vernon was that of morality and hypocrisy. Both made decisions over the course of the novel that are morally wrong and that pit them against each other because one sees the other’s decision as far more grave than the decision they made. It raises the question of whether you can quatify and deem one action as far worse than the other. This whole balancing act also came out when Clive was re-evaluating his friendship, recounting the times that he had helped Vernon but Vernon in turn did not show the same amount of feeling and friendship when the time came.
At the end of the it all, within a span of 170 pages, you see the slow demise of a long friendship between two people. You would think that maybe this friendship would’ve been impossible given their respective past with Molly Lane but their friendship was an interesting one and it was nice to see their interaction. I was rooting that they would overcome this brief impasse but I also had a bit of a feeling that things would not turn out so great for either of them (something that is to be expected with McEwan’s works; I’m still reeling from Atonement, lol).
While this novel revolved around Clive and Vernon, it was interesting to see how George Lane, Molly’s husband, and her other lover Julian Garmony, fit into the picture and how they turned out at the end of the novel. George in particular had been in the periphery for most of the novel, kind of like his role in Molly’s life, but where he turns up at the end of the novel particularly surprised me. You inititally feel badly for him, being the guy who stood by his wife as she ran off with her many affairs but in the moments where he’s in the scene, you really don’t feel very much sympathy for the man. It makes you wonder what made Molly stay with him over the years.
Molly herself, though dead at the start of the novel and the central figure that brought all the characters together, was an intriguing character. It’s through Clive and Vernon mainly that you get a picture of what type of person she was, how full of life she was and how much she changed the lives of these men. She can be fun, she can be artistic, she can be intellectual. At the end I also felt like I missed the character in a way, of what a dynamic character she was in life and in their lives.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this novel. It was quite surprising to see how much happened within the span of such a slim volume. It didn’t quite kick me to the same level of devastation as Atonement did but the last few pages had me thinking even after I closed the book and went to bed. I can see why this novel won the Man Booker prize for 1998, and rightly so! I recommend this book if you’re looking for a quiet but thoughtful novel filled with great prose and some hard-hitting questions (and if you’re a fan of McEwan!).