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Ian (Russell) McEwan Biography

Nationality: British. Born: Aldershot, Hampshire, 1948. Education: Woolverstone Hall School; University of Sussex, Brighton, B.A. (honours) in English 1970; University of East Anglia, Norwich, M.A. in English 1971. Awards: Maugham award, 1976; Evening Standard award, for screenplay, 1983; Booker prize, 1998. D. Litt.: University of Sussex, 1989; University of East Anglia, 1993. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1984.



The Cement Garden. London, Cape, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.

The Comfort of Strangers. London, Cape, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981.

The Child in Time. London, Cape, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

The Innocent. London, Cape, and New York, Doubleday, 1990.

Black Dogs. London, Cape, and New York, Doubleday, 1992.

Enduring Love. New York, Nan A. Talese, 1998.

Amsterdam. New York, N.A. Talese, 1999.

Short Stories

First Love, Last Rites. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1975.

In Between the Sheets. London, Cape, 1978; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Intersection," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1975.

"Untitled," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Winter 1976.

"Deep Sleep, Light Sleeper," in Harpers and Queen (London), 1978.


The Imitation Game: Three Plays for Television (includes Solid Geometry and Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration). London, Cape, 1981; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Or Shall We Die? (oratorio), music by Michael Berkeley (produced London, 1983; New York, 1985). London, Cape, 1983.

The Ploughman's Lunch (screenplay). London, Methuen, 1985.

Soursweet (screenplay). London, Faber, 1988.

A Move Abroad: Or Shall We Die? and The Ploughman's Lunch. London, Pan, 1989.


The Ploughman's Lunch, 1983; Soursweet, 1989; The Good Son, 1994.

Radio Play:

Conversation with a Cupboardman, 1975.

Television Plays and Films:

Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration, 1976; The Imitation Game, 1980; The Last Day of Summer, from his own short story, 1983.

Other (for children)

Rose Blanche. London, Cape, 1985.

The Daydreamer. London, Cape, and New York, HarperCollins, 1994.


Critical Studies:

"The Cement Garden d'Ian McEwan" by Max Duperray, in Études Anglaises (Paris), vol. 35, no. 4, 1982; "McEwan/Barthes" by David Sampson, in Southern Review (Adelaide), March 1984; Ian McEwan by Kiernan Ryan, Plymouth, Northcote House, 1994; Ian McEwan by Jack Slay, Jr., New York, Twayne Publishers, 1996.

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Ian McEwan gained notoriety early in his career for his shocking and often disquieting subject matter. Child sexuality, murder, and bizarre characters became even more disturbing because of the unemotional, matter-of-fact manner in which they were described. While his work has matured, McEwan has not lost his ability to shock his readers and the loss of innocence that motivated much of his early work is still a prominent theme. McEwan, a stunningly diverse writer, has written short stories, plays, an oratorio, television and radio scripts, screenplays, and even a children's book, but the novel has long been the central focus of his efforts.

With the publication of his first book, a collection of short stories entitled First Love, Last Rites, McEwan was hailed as a new and exciting British voice. The disturbing and often surreal tales deal with a range of subjects, but child sexuality is a primary concern. One story tells of a group of orphans and their sexual initiation ritual, and another tells of a teenage boy's seduction of his younger sister. Though the content is sexual, the description is not erotic, but instead deeply disturbing. In Between the Sheets, another collection of short stories, was published next. Though it dealt with a wider variety of material, this book continues McEwan's use of shocking material.

The Cement Garden was McEwan's first novel and contains many elements familiar to readers of his short stories. Jack, the fourteen-year-old narrator, feels partially responsible for his father's heart attack, which took place while he masturbated instead of helping his father. When their mother dies, Jack and his siblings, two girls and a boy, bury her without reporting the death. They continue to live together, but their freedom and guilt send them into a descending spiral of bizarre behavior. This hedonism culminates in the arrival of the police while Jack and his oldest sister fulfill their incestuous desires in, of all places, a baby bed. The obvious symbolism here is present throughout the novel; children are being placed in adult situations. How McEwan shows them to react is frightening.

McEwan's next novel, The Comfort of Strangers, presents the readers with Colin and Mary, an English couple on holiday, who fall in with a local couple that they meet while lost. Though it appears so at first, their meeting was no accident. Robert, the husband of the Italian couple, is a brutish and abusive man. Though the couple disapproves of Robert's violent behavior, his influence improves their sex life. The situation soon descends into nightmare, concluding in murder. The novel, like all of McEwan's works, is beautifully written, thereby enhancing the disturbing aspects of the fiction. This novel's exploration of male chauvinism presents the reader with a new aspect to this troubling writer, but his obsession with the loss of innocence continues.

After The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan took a break from novels and short stories in order to pursue some of his other writing interests. McEwan returned to the novel with The Child in Time, set in the near-future. Stephen Lewis, a writer of children's books and a member of the Prime Minister's Official Commission on Childcare, experiences the loss of a daughter when she is abducted and never returned. He and his wife struggle to come to terms with the pain which soon forces them apart. The sexual imagery of McEwan's early work is notably absent from this novel. Even more surprising is the ending of the novel, which concludes on a hopeful note. Though their pain is not over, Stephen and his wife appear to be reconciling their differences. The focus of the novel continues a trend which began with The Comfort of Strangers. The characters still experience a loss of innocence, but the novel concentrates, not on the loss itself, but rather on the attempts of the characters to recover from that loss.

Another change for the author took place with the publication of The Innocent. Though on the surface the novel appears to be an espionage thriller, the espionage is more of a setting than a central concern of the novel. Based on an actual 1955-56 British-U.S. operation to tap the communications system located near the wall in Berlin, McEwan even uses real characters to flesh out his tale. The story, however, is more concerned with Leonard Marnham, a British technician at work on the project, and his relationship with Maria, a local woman with whom he is having an affair. Their love is complicated by Maria's abusive and usually absent husband, Otto. Predictably this complication culminates in the impulsive murder of Otto. In the ensuing attempt to cover up the killing, the two dismember the corpse and stuff it into two suitcases which they plan to dispose of. The grisly mutilation of the corpse is sure to convince any reader that McEwan continues to be aware of shock value. The subsequent, darkly comic attempts to dispose of the corpse are disastrous, and Leonard and Maria are forced to separate. This novel, like the last, ends on a hopeful note. Though McEwan seems unwilling to give his readers a simple happy ending, the two appear to be reconciled.

Separation continues to be a focus of McEwan's in his next novel, Black Dogs. Jeremy, the narrator, has formed a friendship with the parents of his wife. June and Bernard were once a young couple in love with much in common and a lifetime ahead of them, but a bizarre experience with the black dogs, who give the book its title, forces them apart. The incident deeply affected June and gave her an appreciation for mysticism and religion. Her husband, the rationalist, was unable to accept this change. The destruction of the Berlin Wall forms the backdrop to Jeremy's attempts to trace his way back and discover the truth about the incident which forced this couple apart. The novel concludes with June and Bernard's black dog story, and McEwan's trademark disturbing surprise appears.

One novel that stands apart from the rest is The Daydreamer, a book for children. This tale about transformations is centered around Peter, a ten-year-old boy who has a number of sensational adventures. That McEwan would write such a book is surprising considering his early works; however, The Daydreamer clearly demonstrates McEwan's remarkable versatility.

Enduring Love begins with the death of a man in a freak ballooning accident. The narrator, Joe, was involved and feels partially responsible. While dealing with his own feelings about the incident, he must also fend off the advances of Jed Parry, another participant in the incident, who begins stalking Joe. No one believes Joe's stories about a love-crazed pursuer, and even the reader may doubt Joe's sanity. The combination of experiences comes between Joe and his wife. The novel deals with a number of themes including the impossibility of objective knowledge, normalcy and lunacy, and love. A secondary plotline is even introduced involving the dead man and his family. McEwan skillfully juggles all of these themes and plots to create a powerful work. Once again, the novel ends on a hopeful note as the couple seems to be heading towards reconciliation.

McEwan's latest work is a dark comedy dealing with friendship, ethics, loyalty, artistry, morality, and even revenge. Amsterdam begins with a funeral. Molly Lane has died, and her friends and former lovers are together at her funeral. Two of the latter, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, are friends. Molly's long and painful illness preceding her death encourages the pair to make a mutual suicide pact should either succumb to a similar illness. As the two attempt to get back to their lives, Vernon acquires compromising pictures of Julian Garmony, another of Molly's former lovers and major political figure, and must decide whether to publish the pictures in the newspaper of which he is the editor. Clive, meanwhile, is struggling to compose a millennial symphony commissioned by the British government. The symphony has not been going well, and while in the grip of inspiration, Clive must make a difficult moral decision. Both characters' decisions end badly, and each character ends up despising the other for his choice. McEwan beautifully details each painful moment of their downfall. The ending is no surprise, but still manages to shock the reader. The novel winds up as an indictment of human nature.

McEwan's skill lies in his ability to get inside his characters and describe their thoughts and emotions. His skill at narration, description, dialogue, characterization, and suspense makes his novels difficult to ignore, and the sharp contrast between his beautiful writing and his often disturbing and shocking subject matter only serves to emphasize his skill. Issues of guilt, love, and fear are all involved with McEwan's primary concern with lost innocence. For McEwan that loss brings self-consciousness, and his large body of work explores this theme in a wide variety of situations.

Josh Dwelle

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