April 30, 2012

"Hand on the Shoulder"

By Ian McEwan
~7800 words

A woman recalls how she was recruited into the British security service (MI5).

The first-person narrative is told by the main character, Serena Frome. In the present day she is sixty-one years old, and the events she narrates are said to have taken place forty years earlier, when she was a student in her final year at Cambridge. The story opens with Serena's boyfriend Jeremy and her inability to please him sexually. One day she meets Jeremy's history tutor, Tony Canning, with whom she is soon having an affair. Canning proposes Serena for an MI5 interview but eventually leaves her over what appears to be a trumped up misunderstanding.

As can be gleaned from the short summary, McEwan's storytelling is a bit meandering—some might even say misleading. The reader never learns anything about Serena's work in the MI5, despite the fact that it figures prominently in the first sentence. Jeremy's presence in the story feels like a too-transparent means of introducing Canning, and his homosexuality a too-convenient means of getting rid of him once he has served his purpose (he runs of to Edinburgh to purse a PhD after falling in love with a German violinist named Manfred).

The main flaw of the story, however, is that the relationship between Serena and Canning, which becomes the plot's central thread, is just not that interesting. On the contrary, it feels oddly like what Serena feels when she gazes upon Canning's naked body:
And in a certain light, though it may have been the bedroom curtains, Tony had a yellowish look, like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes—knee and appendicitis operations, a dog bite, a rock-climbing accident, and a childhood disaster with a breakfast frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair.
In the end neither Serena nor Canning makes for a compelling character, and the prose, despite an occasional glimmer, is for the most part forgettable.


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