Leafing through a back issue of New Yorker, I found a hero! A writer who interrupted my meander toward the last cartoon. Ian McEwan’s story “Hand on the Shoulder” should not have had this effect, but it shows what even the most banal plot can become in the hands of a master. This piece of work poses as a love story, young woman, older man, she a student, he a professor, at Cambridge yet. Both of them very British–discreet and sexy and seemingly predictable, bound to fail. However, eyes front and watch McEwan perform magic.
First, he gives us a flat-out first-person intro with a little bomblet in it. Serena, our protagonist, is now a retired secret agent, MI5. She’s spent 40 years in Bond country. That begins what David Maass, writing mentor to the stars, calls bridging conflict. We read on to see how a woman will perform in that setting. What we see is the professor, who is recruiting her, polish her mind and her manners before he hands her off to MI5. We move through her affair with the don (university, not Mafia) as he educates her during their trysts at his country cottage. He insists that she read history and the daily news, that she come to know the country she will defend. He provides, as she puts it, “an extended tutorial in how to live, how and what to eat and drink, how to read newspapers and hold up my end of an argument, and how to ‘gut’ a book.”
Serena accepts both tutelage and the sex as she moves into her adult life. I won’t spoil it. But that first hint of conflict, the woman in a spy’s world–we hold that thread until it finally frays to nothing. So why read this story? McEwan has given us a character to admire and a new slant on an old theme, not a rush into the obvious, high-wire act of espionage. I could go on about the subtle ways that setting emerges both close up and wide focus or the way adjectives (so often suspect in writing advice) freshen like herbs in the salad. Nothing, though, will explain the story but the story. New Yorker, April 30, 2012, Ian McEwan, “Hand on the Shoulder.” Read it and weep for joy.