McEwan, Ian

McEwan, Ian
▪ 2003

      The publication of Ian McEwan's ninth novel, Atonement (2001), helped cement his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic by 2002 as one of Great Britain's premier writers of fiction. Although the novel narrowly failed to win the 2001 coveted Booker Prize, it was judged by the BBC as the “People's Booker” and was nominated for the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Its sales outstripped those of the winning True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) by Australian author Peter Carey, and reviewers were almost unanimous in its praise. A deft and luminous story of love, guilt, and redemption told over six decades, Atonement describes how a terrible lie, told by a 13-year-old girl in 1935, reverberates over time until the close of the century. The Observer (London) hailed the work as “impressive, engrossing, deep and surprising,” while the New York Times called it “the author's most deeply felt novel yet” with “a larger, tragic vision” than McEwan's 1998 Booker winner, Amsterdam.

      Ian Russell McEwan was born on June 21, 1948, in Aldershot, Eng. His father was an army officer, and McEwan wove his experiences at Dunkirk during World War II into Atonement. After earning a B.A. (1970) from the University of Sussex, in Brighton, McEwan gained an M.A. (1971) in creative writing after studying in novelist Malcolm Bradbury's literary-star-producing department at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. The course of study exposed him to the best of American fiction, which he said galvanized him to eschew what was “polite and dull” in English writing and made him “wild” and wanting “to shock.” His first publication, a short-story collection titled First Love, Last Rites (1975), won him the 1976 Somerset Maugham Award. The stories at once enthralled and appalled readers; the outré and the horrific were delivered in tight packages of elegant measured prose, often comic in effect. The spine-tingling style became a hallmark, earning McEwan the nickname “Ian Macabre.”

      Several novels, screenplays, and stories about love, death, and obsessive behaviour followed. Childhood, often not innocent, collided with adult worlds brimming with violence and sexuality. The Cement Garden (1978) depicted four children's descent into bestiality, while The Comfort of Strangers (1981; adapted by Harold Pinter into a film starring Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson) was a grisly murder story set in Venice. Some reviewers found his tales contrived and gratuitously shocking; others applauded his mastery of the incredible. With the birth of his two children, McEwan claimed to experience an extension of his “emotional range.” The passions, actions, and events of Atonement also confirmed him as a master of the credible. When McEwan first revealed Atonement's surprising coda to his wife, she reportedly burst into tears. He wrote it as he had recounted it to her, and it became what one reviewer hailed as a “perfect close.”

Siobhan Dowd

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▪ British author
in full  Ian Russell McEwan 
born June 21, 1948, Aldershot, Eng.

      British novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter whose restrained, refined prose style accentuates the horror of his dark humour and perverse subject matter.

      McEwan graduated with honours from the University of Sussex (B.A., 1970) and studied under Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia (M.A., 1971). He earned notoriety for his first two short-story collections, First Love, Last Rites (1975; filmed 1997) and In Between the Sheets (1978), both of which feature a bizarre cast of grotesques in disturbing tales of sexual aberrance, black comedy, and macabre obsession. His first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), traces the incestuous decline of a family of orphaned children. The Comfort of Strangers (1981; filmed 1990) is a nightmarish novel about an English couple in Venice.

      In the 1980s, when McEwan began raising a family, his novels became less insular and sensationalistic and more devoted to family dynamics and political intrigue: The Child in Time (1987) examines how a kidnapping affects the parents; The Innocent (1990; filmed 1993) concerns international espionage during the Cold War; Black Dogs (1992) tells the story of a husband and wife who have lived apart since a honeymoon incident made clear their essential moral antipathy; The Daydreamer (1994) explores the imaginary world of a creative 10-year-old boy. The novel Amsterdam (1998), a social satire influenced by the early works of Evelyn Waugh (Waugh, Evelyn), won the Booker Prize in 1998. Atonement (2001; filmed 2007) traces over six decades the consequences of a lie told in the 1930s. The influence of Virginia Woolf (Woolf, Virginia)'s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is evident in Saturday (2005), a vivid depiction of London on Feb. 15, 2003, a day of mass demonstrations against the incipient war in Iraq. On Chesil Beach (2007) describes the awkwardness felt by two virgins on their wedding night.

      McEwan also wrote for television, radio, and film, including The Imitation Game (1980), The Ploughman's Lunch (1983), Last Day of Summer (1984), and The Good Son (1993). Several of his screenplays were adapted from his novels and short stories.

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Universalium. 2010.

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