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Reading Ian McEwan’s Mature Fiction: New Critical Approaches, Nathalie Collé, Monica Latham, Armelle Parey and Isabelle Roblin, eds.

Nancy: PUN-Éditions universitaires de Lorraine, coll. Book Practices & Textual Itineraries, 2020
Laurent Mellet
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Reading Ian McEwan’s Mature Fiction: New Critical Approaches, Nathalie Collé, Monica Latham, Armelle Parey and Isabelle Roblin, eds., Nancy: PUN-Éditions universitaires de Lorraine, coll. Book Practices & Textual Itineraries, 2020 (286 p.).

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1In one of the chapters in this new collection on Ian McEwan, two questions are asked that seem to encapsulate the scientific object of the publication itself: ‘[w]hy do we continue to read Ian McEwan?’ (21) and ‘what, really, is the McEwanesque [. . .]?’ (24) In these proceedings of a conference organised at the University of Caen Normandie in 2018, scholars resort to new critical frameworks in order to provide innovative readings of McEwan’s ‘mature fiction,’ that is from the 1990s onwards, when the novelist is thought to have moved from macabre inclinations to deeper, ethical issues. Reading Ian McEwan’s Mature Fiction: New Critical Approaches, guest edited by Armelle Parey and Isabelle Roblin, comprises studies of The Daydreamer (1994), Enduring Love (1997), Amsterdam (1998), Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2007), Sweet Tooth (2012), The Children Act (2014), Nutshell (2016), as well as of the film adaptations of Enduring Love (2004), Atonement (2007) and The Child in Time (2017). In their introduction, ‘Ian McEwan or the Art of Symbiosis,’ Armelle Parey and Isabelle Roblin acknowledge the density of scholarly work on McEwan (David Malcolm, Dominic Head, Lynn Wells, Peter Childs, Pascal Nicklas, Sebastien Groes), up to the recently published Cambridge Companion to Ian McEwan (edited by Dominic Head in 2019). The editors justify their focus on mature fiction and seem to call for an equally mature turn in criticism, which might be based on a new interrogation of McEwan’s unique blending of Victorian tradition and postmodern traits, realism and self-reflexive patterns (11).

2The book is divided into five parts. In the first part, ‘Diachronic Approaches,’ Ivan Callus looks back at ‘Four Decades of Ian McEwan and Contemporary British Fiction’ with a view to unveiling what McEwan’s singularity reveals about contemporary literature and literary criticism. His retrospective is also critical, with interesting remarks on the slow emergence of essays or book chapters on McEwan in the 1980s, or the fact that many studies today start as doctoral dissertations outside the UK (30). So as to answer his own two questions about the McEwanesque and its enduring appeal, Callus suggests four lines of enquiry that may help pinpoint McEwan’s singularity as well as trigger new research: the narrative force of some disruptive event / the aesthetics of dread / an elemental quality in the verisimilitude of environments / the ‘grace’ which readers expect to find in ‘every next variation on [McEwan’s] aesthetic’ (33) and that Callus links to the ethical quandaries of the novels. He then embarks on a reading of McEwan’s latest two books, Machines Like Me and The Cockroach (2019), along these lines of thought. In the next chapter, ‘The Spatiality of Crisis: Hotels in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers and On Chesil Beach,’ Sandra Dinter takes as her starting point the repeated presence of hotels in McEwan’s fiction. She shows that the spatial tension to be found therein is both a mode of characterisation and a symbolic anticipation of the intimate violence the protagonists are to experience there, and suggests a number of interesting connections between On Chesil Beach and McEwan’s second novel The Comfort of Strangers (1981).

3In the second part of the book, contributors take a closer look at ‘The 1990s.’ Virginie Douglas first studies another spatialisation, that of the in-betweenness of childhood through metamorphosis and hybridity in McEwan’s 1984 children’s book (‘Blurring Frontiers in Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer’). Diane Gagneret then shows in ‘“Rationalism Gone Berserk”: Madness and the Scientific Mind in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love’ that one of the main narrative innovations of the novel lies in its complex, formal questioning of the interconnections between reason and madness. Finally, Isabelle Roblin contends that the paucity of female characterisation in McEwan’s 1998 novel is counterbalanced by the major parts that McEwan imagines for these few women (‘The Only Good Woman is the Dead One: Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam’).

4The next part is devoted to one single novel, Atonement: ‘Reconsidering the Past in Atonement.’ In ‘“I Put it All There as a Matter of Historical Record”: Literary Testimony in Atonement by Ian McEwan,’ Sylvie Maurel provides a new insight into the ambiguous status of the novel, poised as it is between fiction and reality, or imagination and testimony. Building on works by Bessière, Derrida and Rancière, she shows that it is precisely as literature that Atonement performs its testimonial duties. Adèle Cassigneul and Elsa Cavalié co-sign the next chapter, ‘Making Us See the Ghosts: Ian McEwan’s Expressive Visual Style,’ in which they offer an original reading of the Victorian, Gothic but also Modernist ghostly representation of the past in Atonement, particularly through the character of Emily Tallis and in the visual and temporal complexities entailed by this spectral representation (‘as Derrida would envision them, the traces of a present that never happened, dislocating the order of time itself’ [135]). In the last chapter, ‘The Manifestation of Authorship from Trauma in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Sweet Tooth,’ Cristina Arbués Caballé lays bare the narrative connections between the two novels and shows that behind the final twists, what they share is the literary possibility to regain control of one’s identity after trauma by becoming an author.

5Contributors in part IV propose new approaches of the ‘Ethical Issues’ at the core of McEwan’s oeuvre. In ‘Law(s) and Literature: Legal, Moral and Poetic Imagination in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act,’ Philipp Sonntag claims that there has been no ethical turn in the novelist’s production, but that ethics as a theme and a narrative questioning has always been germane to his writing. In this thorough piece, Sonntag examines the meaning of the overlapping of legal, moral and poetic discourses and claims that the most ethical and contemporary proposition in the novel is the way McEwan there ‘acknowledge[s] the coexistence of contradictory truths’ (174). Christina Root then studies the modalities of conversation, polyphony and ‘mutually transformative interchange between characters’ (179) in the same novel, shedding light on another ethical narrative dimension (‘The Ideal Conversation in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act’). Finally, in ‘“There is Grandeur in This View of Life”: The Professional as Detached God in Ian McEwan’s Saturday and The Children Act,’ Eva M. Pérez-Rodriguez conflates the leitmotiv of the emergence of the irrational in the realm of professional rationality with ethical probings.

6The two chapters in the next part are studies of ‘Nutshell’s Impossible Narrator.’ Sandra Singer looks at intertextuality in the novel and what it achieves in terms of gender politics in ‘“Time to Join in”: Ethical Agency in Ian McEwan’s Nutshell.’ In the next chapter, ‘“Fondling Details” (Nabokov) to Write In Utero: Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. Consilience in Stand-up Comedy’, Georges Letissier interrogates the effect that consilience in the novel (which is ‘at the crossroads of various scientific disciplines’ [230] but also twists biology by tapping into philosophy, poetry and music) has on its genre classifications). In this in-depth analysis, Letissier also stresses a fundamentally metafictional structure in the novel, ‘since the embryo is constantly confronted to his legitimacy in putting names to things he has never ever seen, and by extension to the arbitrariness of the relation between signifier and signified as exposed by Saussure’ (234).

7The sixth and last part of the book is concerned with film adaptations (‘Adaptations / Transmedial McEwan’). In ‘Figuring Guilt and Responsibility in the Film Adaptations of The Child in Time, Enduring Love and Atonement,’ Nicole Cloarec reminds us of McEwan’s definition of the ethics of literature (‘this process of being able to enter other people’s minds’) and questions its validity in films. She shows that the editing of the viewers’ positioning in these three adaptations is not without renewing the ethical import of the medium and its ability to challenge viewers’ sense of responsibility. In the last chapter, ‘Adaptation, (Re)writing and Predestination in Joe Wright’s Atonement,’ James Dalrymple focuses on this adaptation and argues that far from being another heritage film, it accommodates an original sound aesthetic and provides a coda which, among other things, testifies to Wright’s intricate and modern take on illusion as a key component in the adaptation process.

8This is how the book provides an answer to Callus’s initial questions about why reading McEwan and how to do so in order to define the McEwanesque. In this wide-ranging study, in which authors look at a number of novels with various and complementary theoretical backgrounds, what emerges is a coherent and convincing collection of fresh perspectives (see for instance Sonntag, Cloarec and Dalrymple), of new readings of the McEwanesque (for instance Callus, Dinter and Root) and of thought-provoking propositions for future research (for instance Maurel, Cassigneul and Cavalié, and Letissier). It would have been an asset for the book to have a more fleshed-out introduction on McEwan’s ‘art of symbiosis’ and on the ways this collection may complement the recent findings of The Cambridge Companion to Ian McEwan, for instance. Similarly, there is nothing in the book related to the presence of the novelist at the conference in Caen. Surely there were stimulating exchanges with scholars. Their transcription in the book would have been a rich addition to the project, but it may be that McEwan did not agree for the editors to do so. Yet all in all, the book as it stands will certainly be useful to colleagues and students interested in McEwan, and more generally, to contemporary literature and literary criticism, and film adaptation.

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Laurent Mellet, « Reading Ian McEwan’s Mature Fiction: New Critical Approaches, Nathalie Collé, Monica Latham, Armelle Parey and Isabelle Roblin, eds. »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Mellet

Université Toulouse 2 Jean-Jaurès

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