Serena Frome recalls an episode in her life that occurred over thirty years ago when she was working in a junior role for MI5.
This is written in the first person, and because I'd (perhaps mistakenly) read reviews of the book which commented on there being a surprise ending, I was suspicious of Serena being an unreliable narrator, but the writing was so involving that I was happy to stop looking for clues to this and just immerse myself in the flow of the story.
Serena becomes involved with Tom, a budding writer, and one of the really nice things McEwan does is to have Serena read Tom's short stories in preparation for their initial meeting. Serena gives us a precis of the story she's reading, so that we get just a summary of the story. And the short stories were really good! On a couple of occasions, Serena breaks off from her description of the story she's reading, and considers her reaction to it. And there's a delicious mixture of feeling "I just want Serena to go on reading so she can tell us what happens next" at the same time as enjoying and sharing Serena's own responses. I found that a really effective technique.
One of the short stories has a character who has an interest in "angelology" (which I looked up in the dictionary). Later on, Serena breaks off in her description of the story with some reactions, including the question "and what was this angelology business?". Trying to tease out the threads of who knows what the word means (Tom does, because he "wrote" the story; McEwan does, because he really wrote it; Serena doesn't, even though McEwan wrote her. And there's another twist on top of that one..).
And then Serena's attempt to divine Tom's character by assuming all the short stories were basically representations of his own feelings makes you think "well, is McEwan telling us that they're all representations of him, or making fun of us for thinking that?"
Just towards the end, I realised what the "twist" would be, but I think it was quite a satisfying one. The one thing I did regret was reading a short postscript in which McEwan talked about the book (I think this was a special feature of the "Waterstones" edition). In there, he said something about his writing process which cast certain aspects in a different light and made me feel ever-so-slightly disappointed. I must try to remember not to read that if ever I revisit the book.
I mentioned this when talking about his previous book: like David Lodge, McEwan seems to like introducing an idea from a different academic field and weaving that into the story. In this case, it is mathematics: Tom asks Serena for an example of a counter-intuitive mathematical problem. At first, she struggles ("all mathematical problems just seemed intuitive to me") but then she suggests the Monty Hall problem and Tom knocks up a short story about it. This was very entertainingly done.
All in all it was a lovely book: one that I had to make an effort to read slowly and not devour in a couple of sittings.
Completed : 17-Jun-2013