I picked this short novella up recently and devoured it in about a day. Having previously read some of Ian McEwan’s later novels such as Saturday and On Chesil Beach, I wasn’t expecting such a violent and horrible little story. It deals with four children left abandoned in their house when both their parents die, and the unpleasantness that follows their isolation.
For all the violence, it seems to me the novella is primarily about grief. The children are alone in a cement wasteland, unable to connect with anyone else, seemingly symbolic of the isolation of mourning. The main character, Jack, is disconnected from his sisters and brother and refuses to wash.. His narcissism makes him slow to realise true extent of the grief that has descended over the family and his own mind. You also get a sense of him being an extremely unreliable narrator. When talking to Sue, she mention he was hitting the others and smelled terrible, things that had not been previously mentioned from his perspective. Similarly, his infatuation with Julie hides the fact that her mental health has degraded. Supposedly the calm and rational eldest sibling, it’s clear at the end that she has snapped and is unable to look after the others.
One of the great stylistic tricks of McEwan’s writing is that the terse descriptions and the disconnected voice of Jack masks the growing insanity. So much is implied, including the ending, which cuts off just at the right moment. The events of the novella proceed in a logical way that, whilst not rational, is enough to make you temporarily forget the madness.
In a lot of ways, the novella shares a thematic connection with Lord of the Flies, as the children are abandoned by modern society and authority. The children in this book are not left on a desert island, but in a house in a concrete desert, isolated and cut off from everyone else. Without the rules of society, McEwan shows Jack as a savage, unkempt person, driven solely by his own twisted sexual desires. The other children don’t fare much better as they follow Jack into insanity. It’s an incredibly grim view of human nature, suggesting it does not take much for teenagers to descend into madness and chaos.
It’s probably not for everyone, because of the violence and taboo sex. But I was pleasantly surprised at how different it was to his other, more conservative novels.