Top critical review
9 people found this helpful
Clever - or too clever for its own good?
on 16 June 2015
This is one of those books that readers may find either clever - or just too clever-clever: I'm in the latter category. McEwan is on familiar territory as he makes broad comparisons between fiction and politics, the way ideological positions are all about narrative, about creating a story. Here he offers a view of MI5 in the mid-1970s taking on a project to fund anti-communist writers, including a novelist, to covertly infiltrate cultural consciousness with the governmental/security services' view.
This is not a new topic for fiction: Ellen Feldman's The Unwitting, for example, deals with precisely the same idea only set in New York with the CIA providing the cash. Where McEwan seems to lose his way, though, is in the rambling first person narrative of Serena as she bumbles her way speedreading through world literature, while falling into bed with a series of mostly older, unattractive men, and incidentally running Project Sweet Tooth on the side.
There is ultimately a reason for the stilted, artificial, contrived nature of Serena's storytelling but it's a tricky one to pull off and I didn't think it worked here. One, it's been almost used before by McEwan himself in another book, and two, it's just so self-consciously metaliterary that it's almost a pastiche of postmodern fiction.
In amongst all the literary game-playing, though, I did enjoy the evocation of the 1970s, especially the excursions into British interventions in Northern Ireland. So altogether this is a bit of a potpourri of a novel with lots of stuff mixed up together. Ultimately the voice we hear is always McEwan's own voice (the iambic rhythm of a train's wheels, for example) - self-conscious to the last.