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The Religious Affiliation Writer
Ian McEwan
author of the critically-acclaimed novel Atonement

British novelist Ian McEwan is best known for his novel Amsterdam, which received the prestigious Booker Prize in 1998, and for his critically acclaimed novel Atonement. Ian McEwan is an atheist.

From: Kate Kellaway, "At home with his worries", published 16 September 2001 in The Observer (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,552417,00.html; viewed 31 October 2005):

After winning the Booker Prize in 1998, Ian McEwan's life was turned upside-down by his ex-wife seeking custody of their sons. But now it's happy families and he's written possibly his best novel...

In my handbag, heavy as a stone, was McEwan's new novel, Atonement. It had been weighing on my mind, too, since I finished it. It is, I think, the best thing he has ever written...

...I wondered about the emotions this house must have seen. For since McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 with Amsterdam, the fight over the custody of his sons has earned him even more publicity than his professional success.

It is an ordinary story with extraordinary details, as if a theatrical author had become a little deranged and decided to give it extra colour. McEwan's marriage to his first wife, Penny Allen, ended in 1995. She blamed his success and the negative pull of the 'glitterati'. She worked as a faith healer in Oxford but seemed to have no power to heal family relations. She vilified McEwan's name, took him to court and lost repeatedly, until, as if by a law of diminishing returns, the courts eventually awarded McEwan sole custody of the children and fined her £1,000 for defamation of his name.

And still she did not give up. She petitioned the Lord Chancellor (in vain) and published confidential documents about the breakdown of her marriage on the internet. At one desperate point, she ran away with the younger of the boys in defiance of a court ruling. She lives in France with her partner, a mineralogist who changed his name from Steve Brown to Ismay Tremain because he thought it sounded more distinctive. Brown/Tremain has played a troubling role throughout the story. Most outlandishly, he turned up at the High Court in London, gagged, brandishing a brief case bearing the words: 'Ian Russell McEwan. My next novel is entitled The Destruction of Penny Allen and Ismay Tremain .' You could understand it if, under the circumstances, there had been no 'next' novel at all...

McEwan has understandably always brought down a polite portcullis when asked about his personal life. I suggest, expecting to draw a blank, that there has been much else to keep him awake since 1998. How has he coped? Was he able to close his study door on his anguish? Or did he find his writing galvanised by his troubles? To my surprise, he answers at once, as if he is no longer under the self-censoring constraints of the past: 'I rarely close my study door. I am not one of those hush-Daddy's-working writers. And I don't take the Freudian view that you get driven by neurosis into art. I work by necessity. But I can't shut things out; I go on working only because it is torture not to.'

...His children are the centre of his life. And before long, all custody battles will be a memory... He goes on to tell me that he wrote his son a letter for the occasion, 'as one does - when a child crosses those shadowlines'. It contained 'a bit of advice', a quotation from Freud, he thinks, only he can't find the quote anywhere. I challenge him with making it up (he fooled many a shrink with his bogus report, at the end of Enduring Love, published in a psychiatric journal that never existed). He laughs sheepishly and resumes: 'Freud asked himself what the ingredients of a fulfilling life were and - with amazing practicality - decided that they were good health, interesting work and fulfilling personal relationships.' William [his son], he felt, was scoring high on all counts. It is a useful checklist for life, he believes...

Almost as an afterthought, I mention 'atonement' itself, a difficult concept for an atheist such as McEwan. For him, it is about a 'reconciliation with self'. I like the word, I say. He does too. He was looking at it one day when he saw, suddenly, how it came apart: at-one-ment. As I left, I felt that at-one-ment is exactly what Ian McEwan has achieved.

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Webpage created 31 October 2005. Last modified 31 October 2005.
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