I am not Ian McEwan’s biggest fan. I like him, but I find his characters a little too introspective and there just is not enough action in his novels. I am going through a bit of an “England, dear England” phase, though, so I had a craving for him.
This is typical McEwan, written from the perspective of a woman who worked for MI5 in the sexist ’70s. She is a lover of literature and has the unlikely (to me, anyway) mission of recruiting a writer into a fictional arts program that will pay him enough of a salary to be able to write full time. This is done in the hope that he writes the sort of thing that supports the ideals that the British government supports. This seems like a bit of a waste of money to me, but, according to this book, this was done with Orwell and Koestler. In fact, McEwan drops a few literary names. Martin Amis makes an entrance at a reading done by one of the characters.
The protagonist tells us of her literary tastes. She does not like themes or felicitous phrases, she skips fine descriptions of weather, landscapes or interiors. She would probably had skipped through quite a lot of this book, then. The writer character has written several short stories, summaries of which are in this book. I skipped through them a little, but they are there for a reason, they are references to the writer’s life, and one of them is a clue to the ending of this book.
I very much enjoyed the setting of a ’70s Britain in political turmoil. The plot is set against a background of the IRA issues and the miners strikes and the three-day working week. I wonder how it really was to be a woman in the secret service back then. McEwan paints it as a very oppressive environment. The protagonist is alleged to be not particularly bright by her (male chauvinist?) colleagues. Although she did study maths at Cambridge, so she is certainly not stupid. She’s pretty, though, and a certain sort of man is very nervous of a woman who dares to be intelligent aswell as physically attractive. She baffles her lover by telling the story illustrating that if you have three box to choose from, one contains a prize, you choose one, you are shown one empty box out of the remaining two, the laws of probability state that you should switch your choice to the other remaining box. He does not get it and he does not like that he does not get it. That is not a ’70s thing, a lot of men are not too keen on a woman being brighter than them nowadays.
On the whole this was a likeable story, but the thing I liked the most was the trip back in time to a beautifully illustrated ’70s England. I loved thinking about the politics, the fashions, the way of life for women, romantic relationships and the economy. It was all beautifully portrayed by McEwan.