Thursday, 19 April 2012

'Guest Post' - Paul Harker

Today's guest blogger is my friend and colleague, Paul Harker, who is our technical writer where I work, so unlike me he can actually write. Paul is a multitalented man, he excels at beer drinking, table football and being tall. We don't always agree on literature, or much else, but let's see what he has to say. Over to you Paul.

I should hold my hands up right at the beginning of this review and say I have no place here at IWRB. I’m honoured, of course, that a prestigious mid-level blog such as this should want an unknown such as myself to scrawl anything on its deliciously appointed walls, but this isn’t the place for me. I confess here and now: I do not read fantasy. At all.

I’m trying, at least: I have recently bought and am ploughing through current zeitgeisty pillage-and-rape-fest Game of Thrones. It’s ok. The historical feel is beautifully kept in place with an almost aspergers-level attention to detail and knowledge of his fictional realm.

So, acknowledging my lack of experience in this area, I’m not going to do a review as such of Solar by Ian McEwan. Instead I’m going to try to tell you why you should put down your latest tome with a lavishly drawn and ample-cleavaged pixie on the front and give the old McEwan man a try – even if it’s not your bag. In return I promise to finish GoT and even give something recommend by the great IWRB a try. Deal? Let’s go then.

McEwan is amazing. In the same way as George R. R. R. R. R. Martin (I never know how many ‘R’s to put) can pen a family history like he was doing an end-of-year census for King Théoden (yeah, that’s right, I know things), so too can McEwan write the things that are going on in your brain that you didn’t even know about. His capturing of thoughts and emotions that you may have acknowledged, but could never describe, inside your own head borders on the terrifying.

In Atonement, for example, there is an extended section whereby he describes a youngster getting to grips with the extending and closing of a finger. She is staggered by her ability to control her own body, and perplexed that she cannot put into words how it is that she commands it. She wants a finger to extend, and it does… the rest is a mystery. I remember clearly having this same experience – though of course, I could not articulate it. McEwan does not use fancy language or a medical dictionary – he just knows the human mind.

Take this little snippet, from the beginning of Solar itself:
“He belonged to that class of men—vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever—who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.”
How much is said in those two lines… how much do we learn about this character? I can see him, the short, vain little man, confident in his cleverness. There is not an inch, a centimetre of fat on that opening salvo. Notice how he says “often bald”… he’s not describing the man, bald or not, but the class of man. And we can all imagine that class. And so our brain does the work.

But let me not let you believe that McEwan gets by entirely on beautiful prose and psychoanalysis. His books have varying success when it comes to plot; some are nail-biting page-turners (Saturday, Enduring Love) and some are bordering on laborious and self-serving (arguably Amsterdam) but Solar is funny. The poor man described above goes through a hell of a lot, and he’s basically a good guy, though not good enough to prevent us laughing at his expense. You care, but not too much. Unlike some of McEwan’s work, the relationships do not dominant the plot, and it is much more than an examination of the heart.

So I hope that is some small way, I have explained my love for the work of McEwan. Solar is not his best, but it’s a great place to start if you have any interest. It’s clever, funny, and interesting – it wears its “literary” tag bravely and loudly, but is never showy – and it’s a great read.

Thanks for listening!

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