A Few Bizarre Backlist Reads: McEwan, Michaels & Tremain

I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.

 

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)

[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]

This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.

Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.

Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.

Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.

This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.

Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.

This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.

 

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)

[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]

“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”

Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”

The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.

Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.

 

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)

[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]

In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.

Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.

At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.

To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:

Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation

Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary

Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality

Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident

Confederate flag = Tennessee

Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits

Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop

Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene

Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions

Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell

Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality

Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.

34 responses

  1. I prefer early McEwan to late McEwan and this has just confirmed my sense that I ought to read The Child in Time. Even if it doesn’t hang together as a novel, it sounds like there’s enough there to interest me.

    I also hated Moon Tiger so I think it’s a great readalike for Fugitive Pieces! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did think there were a lot of aspects of The Child in Time that would tie in with your research interests. I’m happy to hold on to my copy for you in the hopes that sometime later this year, or early next, London events will happen again!

      We’ll agree to disagree about Moon Tiger (one of my favourite reads from last year) 😉 Now I have to go back and reread your Fugitive Pieces review.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, that would be great! I ended up buying Three Hours on Kindle, by the way, so feel free to get rid of that one if you want – it entertained me at the time but I think it’ll be quite forgettable. (There were also a couple of weird parallels to Jodi Picoult’s more interesting school shooting novel, Nineteen Minutes, even though the books are very different overall).

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    2. Sure, I’ll put it in the Little Free Library I started down the road. I ended up with two proofs and already gave one to a neighbour, who really enjoyed it but thought the ‘trees bit’ was ridiculous. I didn’t know about the Picoult; I’ve still only read one of her books (and can’t decide whether I want to read more).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The trees bit was very silly! 🙂

        Picoult is very hit and miss, and even her ‘hits’ usually have problems. I like Nineteen Minutes a lot but as ever it’s super implausible.

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  2. I’ve read a lot of McEwan and a lot of Tremain but neither of these!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re odd ones for sure! I would recommend the Tremain as something different from her, but I don’t know about the McEwan. It at least is short (220 pages), which was one of the deciding factors for our book club. I’m still new to McEwan’s pre-Enduring Love backlist, but will persist.

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  3. I ought to re-read The Child in Time – it was the first McEwan I read many years ago. I remember enjoying the BBC dramatisation a few yrs ago (starred Cumberbatch). I sold my copy of Fugitive Pieces – failing to get into it several times. Not read the Tremain, but would like to read more by her. I love your analysis of that cover!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, a Cumberbatch adaptation would be well worth watching! We did a shared-screen viewing of the film of our last book club book, The Age of Innocence. The problem with doing that a week before the book club discussion was that people then didn’t bother reading the book! (Including me, shamefully; I’d read 100 pages but then, since I knew what happened, couldn’t be bothered to read the rest and skimmed to the end.)

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      1. Ain’t that always so – never watch the film until you’ve finished the book! :D. Sadly, The Child in Time TV movie isn’t on free channels at the mo.

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    2. Darn. Our last film viewing was via Amazon: one person bought or rented it and then shared her screen with us on Zoom. To start with the quality was abysmal. The picture was never good, more like a series of freeze frames, but the sound improved to the point that it was watchable.

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  4. I didn’t get on with Fugitive Pieces AT ALL, but loved Moon Tiger! Swings and roundabouts. Sacred Country sounds good, though, worth chasing up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, worth looking out for. Though it’s an early picture of a trans character, I think the representation stands up.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was a fan of Fugitive Pieces which was a surprising bestseller when I was a bookseller thanks to winning the Orange Prize. Not so The Winter Vault which I think was the last of her novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll have to go back and read your background info from the book clubs guide. I’d read one poetry collection by Michaels before. On the basis of that and this one, I don’t think I’d seek out more from her.

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  6. Read about the Cumberbatch-starred A Child in Time on BBC, and it looks like I can view it in its entirety–yay! I read that one ages ago, in my McEwan phase, which died after Sweet Tooth. The aspect I did remember about A Child in Time that I thought was so funny was the fact of the MC being an accidental children’s author. As a writer, that’s an anxiety that hits close to home. (If I make my MC a teen, is it automatically a YA book, etc., etc.) McEwan’s The Innocent is still one of my all-time faves, but some of his others just felt like, well, child’s play–like he was having a laugh, as they say!

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    1. McEwan has rather gone off the boil recently, but I did think Nutshell was remarkable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, I skipped that one. I’ll have to go back–thanks!

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  7. buriedinprint | Reply

    I took a plunge into McEwan years and years ago (when The Cement Garden was “rediscovered” at some point) and have, since, never properly sorted which ones of his I’ve read and haven’t, so I have to start reading and then see if anything’s familiar…when it’s probably been long enough that I’d’ve just forgotten anyhow. (For sure, four, but I see that I don’t even have The Cement Garden marked as read, so obvs that’s not complete.) We’ve already chatted about Michaels; I will have a look at my quotations and see if I have any notes about the section you’ve referred to. And you know I just loved Sacred Country. Also, that cover! So different from mine. I think the style of her writing is very similar in The Long Road Home, and I can see why both would not suit every reader. They’re very dense with detail. But I couldn’t get enough! And I’m not entirely sure how she managed that. Do you have a favourite from your Tremain reading so far? Or, would you rather not say, and keep it for your profile, that’s ok.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I have a lot of darker stuff coming up from the McEwan backlist!

      The Road Home has been my favourite from Tremain for sure. It was the first of hers that I read, back in 2011 or so. I must not have a strong memory of the prose, because Sacred Country felt very different. It’ll be interesting to see how the new one sits in relation to them. I loved how this cover was like a primer to all the subjects contained therein.

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  8. I read Fugitive Pieces too many years ago and I loved it but I do remember it being very dense.

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    1. It certainly wasn’t an easy read, but I did find myself being seduced by the prose.

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  9. I might give Fugitive Pieces another go then. It’s been abandoned on my bookshelves a long time.

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    1. It takes a little while to get into, but if you can persist past the first 20 or so pages, you might be as entranced as I was.

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      1. Good advice. Thank you.

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  10. I’m interested in the Tremaine. What a bizarre cover. Do you know that I’ve never read anything by McEwan? I’ve just never felt the pull to pick one up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Later editions of the Tremain have much more standard (boring) covers. I just loved how much this one had to say about the book, almost like a code.

      You don’t have to read any McEwan, of course! But if you did want to try one, I’d probably recommend Atonement.

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  11. I read Fugitive Pieces so long ago that I can’t remember it at all. I do remember that it was hard to get through, but have always thought I read it too young and should try it again. Still on the fence about that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can you be a Canadian and NOT read it? 😉 It was definitely not what I’d call an easy read, but a mostly rewarding one. Do you know much about the rest of her work? I tried one poetry collection and remember it being just okay.

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      1. That’s the only thing of hers I’ve read.
        Maybe you’d like this one? https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25241450-the-adventures-of-miss-petitfour
        🙂

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    2. That looks positively delightful! I love the cats’ names.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It must have been so much fun to come up with their names! “Moutarde” especially made me laugh.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. […] and have managed five more since then – plus a reread, a DNF and a skim. I recently reviewed Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the […]

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  13. […] The split perspective and the focus on people who have to hide their sexuality are most similar to Sacred Country. The Victorian tip of the hat is mostly directed, I think, to George Eliot; of recent work, I was […]

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