I first encountered Ian McEwan when I saw the 2007 film adaptation of his book Atonement starring Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan and the talented James McAvoy who gave a poignantly gripping performance. (Sadly, I lost respect for him after his subsequent movie, Wanted).
I was captivated by the story and mood of Atonement, and I promised myself that I would read McEwan's books. So when I chanced upon the beautiful and haunting cover of The Innocent at the bookstore, I figured why not start with this one?
Young British post office worker Leonard Marnham is assigned by his government to work in post-war Berlin, at a time when spies are everywhere and you never know whom to trust. For the first time in his life, he lives apart from his parents. He falls in love, loses his virginity, becomes competent at his job, gets engaged to his dream girl, and then commits a horrible crime. He desperately tries to cover his tracks, events spin out of his control and our hearts break at the loss of his innocence.
Leonard reminds us of what it's like to be 25 years old, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We were young, foolish and invincible. The world was our oyster and anything was possible. We were filled with enthusiastic naiveté, and "the future" meant "next week".
I started reading this book on the flight to Singapore about a month ago. I could have finished it easily in a few hours, but I deliberately put it down at times, especially at the cliffhangers. McEwan does suspense deliciously, and I found myself wanting to prolong each thrill.
He has a singular talent for making us nostalgic for the Cold War.
In the book's Postcript, our hero returns to West Berlin. The last time he was there was in 1955 when the Berlin Wall, symbol of the Cold War, hadn't been erected yet. And now, 35 years later, the Wall is about to fall. Leonard asks the hotel clerk directions to a viewing platform. He is told to go soon.
"A little while ago the students were demonstrating in East Berlin. Do you know what they were shouting? The name of the Soviet leader. And the police hit them and chased them with water cannon.
"Who would have thought that the name of the Soviet General Secretary would be a provocation in East Berlin?
"A couple of weeks ago he came to Berlin. You probably read about that too. Before he came everyone was saying, He'll tell them to take down the Wall. Well, I knew he wouldn't, and he didn't. But next time, or the time after, five years, ten years. It's all changing."
How awesome it is to have lived through those times! How wonderful it is to be excited by an author again! I'll be on the lookout for Ian McEwan's Amsterdam next.