You always remember where you are the first time you read Ian McEwan. For me, it was Atonement. Early 2006. My bedroom, in the flat I was living in, near Canary Wharf. I had started slowly, and then spent most of Sunday reading; at midnight, with over a hundred pages to go, I realised that I couldn’t sleep until I knew what happened. Finally finishing at around 2.30am, I knew I would regret it the next day, and yet my brain was still fizzing with the brilliance of great writing. I stood on the balcony, in the cold, watching a lonely Barking and Dagenham milk float trundle by, and despairing of ever being able to write that well. I quickly devoured the rest of his backlist, and indiscriminately loved it all.
Which is why I was so, so disappointed by The Children Act. Even from the first page, the violently successful protagonist (a female High Court judge, no less) lists the upper-middle class trappings which surround her. Chaise longues, pianos, well-stocked drinks cabinets, all seemed to be given an importance far in excess of the place they occupy in – well, in my life, at least. I didn’t care about the people who cared about these things. I couldn’t bring myself to cry for a woman who, when her life was falling apart, reached for a ready meal for one and some fruit. I found myself thinking, ‘Order a pizza, will you?’. Not to mention a gallon of wine. I don’t know anybody who reacts that way, not straight away. Her reactions, all of them, were just too…polished. I like stories where people change, or else they change the world around them, or die trying. The alabaster, upper middle class world of the novel felt far too solid and narrow-minded for me, the same at the end as it was at the beginning, with anyone who didn’t quite fit being expelled like a piece of grit from an oyster. Unfortunately, what was born in the process was significantly less enchanting than a pearl.