This is a book of two halves, except that the halves are jumbled up and the reader has to dig around to decipher the half that appeals. It's a simple and rather plotless story of a mediocre man's life, from his early childhood as a serviceman's child, to the septuagenarian set against world history. The connections between the history and his individual events are drawn as symbolic or catalyst, the best example being the Cuban Missile Crisis serving as a warning that the teenager may die without any carnal knowledge.
It is this first sexual experience and its consequences that run through the book. A female piano teacher is physically, mentally and sexually abusive and the boy believes that this is a thing of love. It is a fantasy for him but I did wonder how different it would have been if the teacher were a man. As the years pass the police inform him that times have changed and a crime has been committed. The story opens with his memory of a piano lesson, the detail of the teacher's perfume, the pattern of the tiles in intense and intoxicating detail, before switching to the police asking him about his missing wife, many years later. She left him and their very young baby, so she could write novels in Germany.
There is a non-linear approach to his life and the world history, as if he looks back on it all. He is aimless and unambitious and the bigger events encourage him to react in some way, sometimes a tenuous link but as he feels powerless he attaches significance. Perhaps typical of his generation he “lolled on history’s aproned lap, nestling into a little fold of time, eating all the cream” he drifts from one thing to another, never finding a career or purpose. There are references to 'lessons' throughout but the best one is that the lessons learned are 'the years'. Or perhaps that a good story shouldn't spoiled by lessons learned.
There is far too much exposition surrounding parts of his life, and the events are too often listed like a newspaper summary text, most of which fails to hold my attention. It took me a month to read this book and I read three other books between starting and finishing this one. At almost five hundred pages it can afford to lose a few.
However, the parts that are immediate are intense and all-consuming. McEwan knows the human condition and the English language and uses these skills to absorb the reader: this is the half I looked forward to reading. The women in the story are the characters who stand out, some very unlikeable but interesting nonetheless, who perhaps serve all of the lessons. The most important being one of the youngest.
A story about reflection and regret, and how much power an individual has. This is a complex and yet simple tale, relevant to us all.
Published by Random House UK, Vintage, Jonathan Cape on 13 September 2022.
Advanced review copy supplied by the publisher.