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Hand On The Shoulder
April 23, 2012 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Hand On The Shoulder, a short story by Ian McEwan. My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with "plume"), and forty years ago, in my final year at Cambridge, I was recruited by the British security service.
posted by shivohum (17 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
As with many fiction pieces in the New Yorker, this is actually an excerpt from an upcoming novel but the magazine usually doesn't say so.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, due out Q4 2012 (presumably first in the UK)
posted by Bwithh at 6:39 PM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Love McEwan's writing. Glad you explained it was an excerpt, Bwithh. I was thinking that it seemed to end a bit up in the air, to say the least.
posted by Decani at 7:27 PM on April 23, 2012


I'd encourage anyone not familiar with Ian McEwan to read Eternal Love. It has the most powerful opening chapter of any book I've read.
posted by panaceanot at 8:18 PM on April 23, 2012


Why would a writer start a story with the detail that the protagonists last name is pronounced differently that it is spelled? My apologies if it plays some part in the greater story, I am going to wait to read the dead tree edition when they are done with the copy down at the post office.

It's a curious way to begin, but with a talent like McEwan, obviously calculated to impart some information.
posted by Keith Talent at 8:35 PM on April 23, 2012


I thought it was meant to convey the persnickety, pedantic personality of the narrator. Didn't love the story, though, and I am generally a McEwan fan.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:54 PM on April 23, 2012


Why would a writer start a story with the detail that the protagonists last name is pronounced differently that it is spelled?

Opening sentances are so important in fiction. My guess? This imparts a whole lot more 'this fictional character is tangible' than opening with "My name is John Smith".

On preview, kinda what Sidhedevil said.
posted by panaceanot at 8:57 PM on April 23, 2012


Why would a writer start a story with the detail that the protagonists last name is pronounced differently that it is spelled?

In Britain , this may be a social marker of an aristocratic or traditional upper class background. In addition , McEwan may be hinting at characterization or laying down plot foreshadowing here. Serena = serene. "Frome" comes from the Celtic for fine, fair, brisk. "Plume" conjures up images of powerful smoke. There is the punning suggestion perhaps that Frome is a "nom de plume" - a pen name. Serena is serene, fine and brisk and not who she seems to be. She is an unreliable narrator, as one might expect from a spy - espionage is all smoke and a wilderness of mirrors.
posted by Bwithh at 9:37 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or a less convoluted simpler explanation is that the character who is telling the story is making the pun. She is a spy writing her memoirs so she has chosen a pen name and makes a hinting joke about it.
posted by Bwithh at 9:41 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Ian McEwan is a literary giant - and the thing is you never know what you'll get. His book of short stories - First Loves, Last Rites - has such disturbing storylines, it reads like Will Self. But then he can be elegant and restrained as in Amsterdam. But there is always something punch in your gut visceral that gets you in the end. Enduring Love (I think that's the novel you meant panaceanot) is fantastic. My favorite book of his is Black Dogs - where the arc of two lives take dramatically different turns after a honeymoon encounter with some feral dogs in post WWII France. Looking forward to his new book eagerly.
posted by helmutdog at 11:41 PM on April 23, 2012


I have to say I really enjoyed hating Saturday - not for it's prose, which I thought was impeccable and a real joy to read, but because of how much I did not like the protagonist. Or the story. Wow, did I hate those people.

I picked up Black Dogs a million years ago at the Strand and didn't get further than the first chapter, put it down and forgot about it. Picked it up maybe five years later and still couldn't get into it.

I just finished Solar a couple months ago and that was a hoot and a much more interesting despicable character. Similarly with Amsterdam, some really terrific characters.

He has written an impressive amount that does not suck, but damn if he doesn't write a lot. I sometimes think if he spent six months longer on each book he be popping out one beauty after the next, instead of books that contain beautiful parts.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:02 AM on April 24, 2012


Funnily enough, From Bklyn, I had the same problem with the characters in Atonement. I didn't hate the characters in Saturday but didn't exactly like them enough to be invested. Maybe I'll try the other two you mentioned sometime.
posted by jacalata at 1:03 AM on April 24, 2012


I loved Black Dogs - I read reviews that said it was difficult, but I didn't find it so at all. Saturday was a great, gripping read, but nothing more so far as I could see. Solar was OK but I didn't really see the point of it. The Child in Time is my personal favourite. I agree that Eternal Love is good: that powerful opening chapter is of course a dramatised version of a philosophical thought-experiment, which in a way makes it even more of a tour de force.

Looking forward to this new one.
posted by Segundus at 1:10 AM on April 24, 2012


Didn't care for Atonement or Saturday--not even for the skill in writing it. But I liked this story and how it was written, and now I'm looking forward to the full novel.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 AM on April 24, 2012


And here is a conversation with McEwan from the New Yorker's Book Bench about the story.
posted by billcicletta at 5:57 AM on April 24, 2012


As with many fiction pieces in the New Yorker, this is actually an excerpt from an upcoming novel but the magazine usually doesn't say so.

I would love to know if this is really more common than it used to be; it certainly feels like it, and is slightly irritating, like the excerpt is really there as part of a marketing campaign, rather than as a piece of great fiction on its own merits.
posted by Forktine at 6:44 AM on April 24, 2012


The clandestine security agency recruitment premise sounds an awful lot like the core of the movie The Ghost Writer.
posted by Philofacts at 10:49 AM on April 24, 2012


Forktine, I think the New Yorker fiction goes in cycles as far as the "excerpts from longer works" vs. "self-contained short stories" goes. I share your preference for the latter myself, but I don't think it's a linear trend.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:41 AM on April 24, 2012


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