Literary Fiction / Romance

12 Best Ian McEwan Novels

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Ian McEwan published his first novel The Cement Garden in 1978. It received positive reviews, particularly for a debut novel, and he has been publishing ever since; his latest released in 2019. His work is often adapted for television and film, the most famous of which is Atonement starring Keira Knightely and James McAvoy. He has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times and won the award in 1998 for his novel Amsterdam. Below is a list of McEwan’s best books that are sure to quench your thirst for romance and scandal.

1. Atonement

McEwan wrote his most famous novel in 2001. Atonement is set in 1935 but jumps forward to World War II and the present day throughout. In 1935, the Tallis family is having a party. The eldest sister Cecilia has just graduated college with family friend Robbie, and it soon becomes clear the two have feelings for each other. However when Briony, the younger Tallis sister, witnesses them in a compromising position, she makes a dangerous assumption that ruins the course of all their lives. The film adaptation directed by Joe Wright won an Oscar (and was nominated for six more) and a Golden Globe award.

2. Nutshell

Nutshell is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in modern day London. The most interesting part of Nutshell is that it is narrated entirely by an eight month old fetus. The unborn baby listens and understands everything its mother is saying, and even has a surreal fondness for certain kinds of wine. The baby’s mother conspires with her lover, the child’s uncle, to murder the baby’s father. Unable to do anything, the child simply reflects on these decisions in an often ridiculous way–the idea that an unborn child can eavesdrop on life’s comings and goings is a frightening thought. Nevertheless, Nutshell manages to make such an idea plausible, and critics responded well to this adaptation of Hamlet.

3. Enduring Love

Enduring Love was published in 1997, and never has there been a better opening chapter to a novel. When Joe and Clarissa witness a terrible accident while having a picnic one afternoon, their lives unintentionally entangle with other witnesses. While Joe tries to move on from what he saw, fellow witness Jed Parry clings to him, using their shared trauma as a way to infiltrate Joe’s life. What starts as two survivors working toward healing becomes something else, and no matter what Joe does, he can’t rid himself of Jed. No one seems to see in Jed what Joe does, causing him to question his own sanity. While the novel was made into a movie starring Daniel Craig, the adaptation was significantly different and didn’t get great reviews. The novel, however, remains a classic and disturbing tale of unrequited love and obsession.

4. On Chesil Beach

On the eve of their wedding, young Edward and Florence check into a hotel just off Chesil Beach. The two are drastically different, but adamant in their love for one another. However, when it comes to consummating their marriage, something they have yet to do, anxiety and fear take over and threaten to ruin them. On Chesil Beach is one of those stories that dives so deeply into its protagonists’ heads that they almost step out of the pages. McEwan reveals all there is to know about Edward and Florence so you can almost see the ending before it even happens. This 2007 novella was made into a film in 2017 starring Saoirse Ronan.

5. Sweet Tooth

This 2012 novel is set in the 1970s and follows Serena, a woman reflecting on when she was recruited by the M15 to combat communism. Based on Serena’s narrative, the reader is aware the events that took place ended badly for her. Serena, brought up by a bishop, takes a detour on her path when she accepts the position with the M15. When she falls for her mark, a writer named Tom Haley, she must reassess where her loyalties lie and who she can trust in a profession that teaches her to trust no one. From the beginning there is tension and suspense over what will become of the lovers, and this slowly unwinds as the rest of the story is told. 

6. The Child in Time

Often considered one of McEwan’s best works, The Child in Time is about a children’s author and his wife as they survive after the kidnapping of their 3-year-old daughter Kate. Time stops in the novel; Kate remains a toddler to her parents because that is when they last saw her, and their grief has, to an extent, rendered their lives paused. It is not a horror novel, yet what occurs is a parent’s worst nightmare. This book’s greatest achievement is perhaps that it makes its reader feel the same longing for Kate to be found that her parents do, and feel the same helplessness and hopelessness with every passing year. Kate is both absent and present, both alive and dead, and McEwan deals with this devastation wonderfully. 

7. The Children Act

The Children Act was so named after The Children Act of 1989 in the UK Parliament that sought to mandate the interests of children and their wellbeing. In the novel, Fiona Maye is a respected High Court Judge with a high-pressure career and a failing marriage. Issues in her personal life clash with her professional life, as she takes on a case for a young Jehovah’s Witness who needs a blood transfusion after his leukemia diagnosis. This story is complicated and depicts the difficulty of acting in people’s best interests, even when that person believes otherwise. The novel was published in 2014 and made into a film that hit cinemas in 2017 starring Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci. While some critics believe McEwan to have missed the mark with Fiona’s character and her husband’s ludicrous reasons to want an affair, the complexity of the moral situation here, particularly that it involves a minor, makes The Children Act engaging. 

8. The Comfort of Strangers

The Comfort of Strangers was McEwan’s second novel, published in 1981. Mary and Colin have been together seven years, and they’re bored. On holiday they meet married couple Robert and Caroline. At first they’re charmed by the pair, but the longer Mary and Colin spend with them, the more sinister their relationship and world views appear. This novel divided critics as some found it distasteful due to some of the sex scenes, and others believed it was a wonderful story that far surpassed his first work, The Cement Garden. It is a character study into the most primal and often disgusting parts of human nature that make for an agonising but alluring read.

9. Machines Like Me

McEwan’s latest novel Machines Like Me was published in 2019. He takes a dystopian turn, taking the reader back to the 1980s in an alternative version of history. In the novel’s timeline, the United Kingdom lost the Falklands War, and modern day technologies like social media and the internet already exist. The mathematician Alan Turing is still alive and has created artificial intelligence in this parallel universe. Machines have already begun to rule beyond what they were programmed to do. Everyday people can purchase robots, so-named Adams and Eves, and the protagonist of this novel, Charlie, does just this. It’s a thought-provoking warning against artificial intelligence and its dangers, one that feels uncomfortably close to home.

10. Saturday

Saturday depicts the London demonstrations of 2003 that opposed America’s invasion of Iraq. The protest, which took place in February of 2003, was the largest in London’s history at the time. The novel focuses on neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, a successful doctor going about his day and taking moments to reflect on the demonstration and consequences of the war. What proceeds this is a bizarre day in his otherwise ordinary life, including an act of violence and a burning airplane. This post-9/11 novel deals with the new way of living and thinking in the wake of the Twin Towers attack. There’s a sense of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway here, a novel that also encapsulated a single day and questioned the ethics of war.

11. The Innocent

McEwan wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his novel The Innocent starring Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Rosellini. Set in Berlin in the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, Leonard Marnham repairs tapes that the Americans use to tap Russian phone lines. While in Berlin, he falls for a divorcee, Maria, and the two begin a relationship, much to the anger of Maria’s violent ex-husband. As the name would suggest, there’s a huge theme of innocence and its loss within Leonard and the wider population. With The Innocent, McEwan proves his ability to research and ensure his novels sound not only plausible, but probable.

12. The Cement Garden

McEwan’s first novel was published in 1978. The Cement Garden was an original and bold tale of siblings who intend to survive and stick together after the unexpected death of their parents. Worried they’ll be separated and put through the foster care system, they decide to instead hide the fact that their mother has died by encasing her in cement and burying her in the garden. The story is told by 14-year-old Jack as he desperately tries to keep what’s left of his family together. The novel is a twisted tale of unhealthy love, the kind that only spawns out of trauma and loss. When Jack and his sister Julie must become the parental figures to their younger siblings with no guardians to look out for them, it is no wonder the lines blur between right and wrong.

About Author

Katy is a Creative Writing MA graduate working as a content writer. She loves all genres of fiction, including literary/dystopian/thriller/historical, and she also dabbles in reading memoir and short stories. In her spare time, she writes her own fiction and is working on her debut novel.

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