McEwan has created an alternative 1982 London in which Britain loses the Falklands War and PM Thatcher is defeated by Tony Benn. Most significantly, Sir Alan Turing achieves an artificial intelligence breakthrough resulting in the creation of humanoid robots; prototypes are named Adam and Eve. Charlie purchases an Adam and together with his girlfriend Miranda, Adam’s personality (mind) is personalized. What follows is a fascinating 3-way relationship story. With machine learning, what makes us human? This provocative and enthralling story is one of McEwan’s best.
First, a confession – my opinion on McEwan books runs hot and cold: there are great books (Atonement, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach) but many are not so great, in my opinion. This new novel belongs firmly in the great category. First, there is a unique point-of-view; the narrator is an 8-month fetus. The description of his acquisition of consciousness is fantastic, and sage commentaries on placenta-filtered wines are provided. And then there is the great prose: “Long ago, many weeks ago, my neural groove closed upon itself to become my spine and my many million young neutrons, busy as silkworms, spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea, a notion so simple that it partly eludes me now”. Exquisite writing.
McEwan writes wonderfully; even sentences with multiple phrases separated by commas read smoothly. In this novel about a 59 year-old Family Court Judge, McEwan revisits a theme in Atonement, namely that actions have consequences. In this book, however, the main character is not very likeable, mainly because she is selfish, therefore it seems very unlikely that there can be any “atonement” so the ending becomes somewhat unsatisfactory. Not one of McEwan’s bestbooks but still worth a read.