Ian McEwan, the great British short story writer and novelist, was born on June 21, 1948. He has had one of the longest and most varied careers of his generation of British writers which includes Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.
McEwan’s father was an Army major and McEwan grew up on various military bases in the Far East and in Germany, not returning to England until he was twelve. He began writing in University and started publishing short stories with weird Gothic plots of violence and incest. This earned him the nickname “Ian McCabre” in the press.
I first started reading him during this phase, in early story collections like The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers in the late 1970s and early eighties. Then came a series of novels – The Child in Time, The Innocent, Black Dogs, Amsterdam, Enduring Love – that became increasingly naturalistic.
Recently, his work has returned to the otherwordly and beyond. 2016’s Nutshell retells the story of Hamlet as narrated by a fetus, and his most recent novel, 2019’s Machines Like Me, is a reimagined history of the past where lifelike robots with artificial intelligence are available in the 1980s.
McEwan’s biggest commercial hit was 2001’s Atonement, which brought him mainstream attention, especially after it was adapted into a very successful movie. He followed that up with another amazing string of novels including Saturday, On Chesil Beach, Solar and The Children Act.
A novella, My Purple Scented Novel, which was already published in The New Yorker, is being published today to celebrate McEwan’s 70th birthday.
I have read almost all of McEwan’s books and have only occasionally been disappointed (Sweet Tooth didn’t grab me, for example).
McEwan is famous for doing prodigious research on his novels so that a book about a judge presiding over the case of a Jehovah Witness youth refusing medical treatment (The Children Act) or one in which the main character is a brain surgeon (Saturday) not only do the emotions ring true but the actuality of the characters’ knowledge and thought processes do as well.
He is a major talent who I am sure readers a century from now (if there are any left) will look to to be entertained and to understand our strange era in time.