Jackets of Ian McEwan books, tiled diagonally against a blue background

Winner of the 1998 Booker Prize, the Somerset Maugham award, the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award, and the 2011 Jerusalem Prize, Ian McEwan is one of today’s best-loved novelists. With a new novel, Lessons, coming this September, now is the perfect time to dive into his masterful catalogue of work.

Lessons (13 Sept)

When the world was still counting the cost of the Second World War and the Iron Curtain had descended, young Roland Baines’s life was turned upside down. Two thousand miles from his mother’s protective love, stranded at an unusual boarding school, his vulnerability attracted piano teacher Miss Miriam Cornell, leaving scars as well as a memory of love that will never fade.

Now, when his wife vanishes, leaving him alone with his tiny son, Roland is forced to confront the reality of his restless existence. As the radiation from Chernobyl spreads across Europe, he begins a search for answers that looks deep into his family history and will last for the rest of his life.

From the Suez Crisis to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall to the current pandemic and climate change, Roland sometimes rides with the tide of history, but more often struggles against it. Haunted by lost opportunities, he seeks solace through every possible means – music, literature, friends, sex, politics and, finally, love cut tragically short, then love ultimately redeemed. His journey raises important questions for us all. Can we take full charge of the course of our lives without damage to others? How do global events beyond our control shape our lives and our memories? And what can we really learn from the traumas of the past?

Epic, mesmerising and deeply humane, Lessons is a chronicle for our times – a powerful meditation on history and humanity through the prism of one man’s lifetime.

First Love, Last Rites (1975)

Ian McEwan’s literary career was launched in 1975 with the publication of his first book of short stories, First Love, Last Rights, for which he won the Somerset Maugham Award. Then 27 years old, McEwan was hailed as ‘a talented and genuinely imaginative writer’ by Julian Barnes, writing for the New Statesman; as ‘a brand new writer of formidable talent’ by the Daily Mail; and as ‘the most promising writer around’ by the Observer.

From incest to actors making love mid-rehearsal; from children roasting a cat to a man who keeps a penis in a jar, the collection is dark and disturbing, full of ‘strange voices, other weird or wretched characters’ that seemed to ‘haunt or infest’ McEwan’s writing as a young man, in his own words.

Taut, brooding and densely atmospheric, these stories show us the ways in which murder can arise out of boredom, perversity can result from adolescent curiosity, and sheer evil might be the solution to unbearable loneliness.

Atonement (2001)

On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house.

Watching her too is Robbie Turner who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge. By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever, as Briony commits a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.

A modern classic, one of the Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century, and inspiration for the smash-hit film starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy and Saoirse Ronan, Atonement is perhaps Ian McEwan’s best-loved novel. The story of love and deceit (with an equally fascinating behind-the-scenes publishing story of its own) is a must-read for anyone new to McEwan’s work.  

Saturday (2006)

Saturday, 15 February 2003.

Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon, stands at his bedroom window before dawn and watches a plane – ablaze with fire like a meteor – arcing across the London sky. Taking place over the course of a single day as unease gathers about Henry, Saturday is a gripping novel centring around the London anti-war protest in 2003.

While political activists mass in the streets, a minor car accident brings Henry into confrontation with Baxter, a fidgety, aggressive man, who appears to be profoundly unwell. But it is not until Baxter makes a sudden appearance at the Perowne family home that Henry’s earlier sense of unease seems to be justified…

This is ‘A book of great maturity, beautifully alive to the fragility of happiness and all forms of violence,’ according to the Financial Times; ‘Everyone should read Saturday.

On Chesil Beach (2007)

On Chesil Beach is a compact and devastating novella, set in 1962 Dorset.

Florence and her husband Edward are a pair of young innocents, newly married and spending their honeymoon at a hotel on the coast. Over dinner in their rooms, they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come. Unbeknownst to them both, the events of the evening will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Writing for the Guardian, Natasha Walter says, ‘McEwan brings Florence and Edward touchingly alive for us; and their seriousness, their idealism, and their desire for love draw us towards them.’

Like Atonement, On Chesil Beach has also enjoyed a cinematic life, with Saoirse Ronan once more playing a lead role – this time as the character of Florence.

The Children Act (2014)

Named for a piece of 1989 British legislation which states that a child’s welfare should be the ‘paramount consideration’ in court cases – taking priority over parental and religious wishes – The Children Act is ‘a powerful, humane novel’ (Evening Standard) exploring the application of this ruling.

Fiona Maye, a leading High Court judge, renowned for her fierce intelligence and sensitivity, is called on to try an urgent case. For religious reasons, a seventeen-year-old boy is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life. And time is running out.

When Fiona visits the boy, the encounter stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy.

Should the secular court overrule sincerely held faith? It is Fiona who must ultimately decide whether he lives or dies, and her judgement will have momentous consequences for them both.

Solar (2010)

Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. A compulsive womaniser, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering. But this time it is different: his wife is having the affair, and he is still in love with her.

When Beard’s professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and save the world from environmental disaster.

Often writing on the pulse of the news agenda, Ian McEwan turns his eye to the climate crisis in this darkly satirical novel. Ranging from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of New Mexico, Solar shows human frailty struggling with the most pressing and complex problem of our time. A story of one man’s greed and self-deception, it is a profound and stylish work that is also ‘enormously entertaining’ to read, in the words of the Sunday Times.

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