My first McEwan and it won’t be the last. This guy can write a very engrossing novel.
He’s got a great ability to craft characters in such a way that you really want to know more about them and what makes them tick. You also find yourself very much in the mind of the character.
For example, this novel has the main character, Joe, in a great crisis of mind over an issue which I won’t divulge. The thing is, that as you read Joe elaborating this, you yourself are in a great crisis of mind over the character and his response to this issue. Almost chapter by chapter you’re changing your mind about what’s what and that makes for an intriguing reading experience.
The book is strangely titled though. It makes me feel that the plot is somehow simply a vehicle for a deeper discussion which I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped. Joe is married to a woman called Clarissa, and if there’s one character in the book which I was disappointed with it’s her.
I’m not sure though whether that’s a result of weak development on the part of McEwan or my own lack of understanding. But from the word go, I had doubts about her commitment to her husband. It just seemed so shallow. At the slightest excuse, she shuns him and doubts him. There’s a scene where Joe rifles through the contents of her desk in their house. He’s ridden with guilt over this and when she finds out he’s done it, she treats it as a betrayal.
But having been married thirteen years myself, I had to wonder what kind of marriage it would be where your desk and its contents would be off limits to your partner. Marriage is about one-ness, a nakedness of the most holistic sense, of two people who lose their original identities to find one new and much more significant one with each other. I think for Clarissa at least, the purpose of marriage, of love in the first place, was one she’d never asked.
Take this quote for example, from a letter she writes Joe which is almost the final chapter of the book:
I always thought our love was the kind that was meant to go on and on.
A person who makes a comment like that is one who has abdicated their responsibility for nurturing, protecting and harbouring love in favour of nurturing, protecting and harbouring themselves.
Clarissa seems to remain calm, cool and collected through most of the book. She’s presented as rational in relation to Joes crisis of mind. But at least Joe retains the humanity which not only demonstrates the need for unconditional love between married partners but gives us a glimpse of the turbulence of a heart which can sustain it.
The beginning is simple to mark.
the relentless plainsong of the divorce novitiate – the pained self-advocacy that hymns the transmutations of love into hatred or indifference
Say it again slowly, that thing about the river.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good> excellent > superb