Ian McEwan has written 16 novels and there not a dud among them. He is the only author whose books I buy hardback: I am always so keen to read his latest. Amsterdam won the 1998 Booker Prize, but in truth at least half a dozen of his novels are just as good. Two have made great films: Atonement and The Children Act.

McEwan is a serious writer. His novels often deal with moral dilemmas which he presents and explores through the characters and the story. And though the books deal with weighty issues, there is always a strong narrative drive and a build-up of suspense that holds your attention.

Two of his most recent books are Nutshell (2016) and Machines Like Me (2019).

Nutshell’is a witty new retelling of the Hamlet story – narrated by an unborn child, whose mother Trudy (Gertrude) is in love with her husband’s brother Claude (Claudius). Just as in Shakespeare’s play, Claude plots to kill his brother. From inside the womb the child hears and understands all that’s going on. He is powerless to save his father, but determined to see his uncle punished.

It is playful, deftly written and intriguing, and once the reader adapts to the novelty of an unborn narrator, the story grows in excitement and suspense. I think it’s his best novel to date.

In Machines Like Me artificial intelligence has made great strides and the first human robots (androids) looking, talking and acting like humans, have just gone on sale: 12 males called Adam; 13 females called Eve.

Charlie, the central character, buys an Adam. But the novel is not set in some futuristic, science fiction world. It all takes place in London and Salisbury, in an alternative 1980s, in which the Falklands War was lost and Tony Benn became Prime Minister. Three main plotlines are cleverly interwoven and McEwan resolves all three in the final pages of the novel.

As you read the book you are confronted by a series of complex moral dilemmas involving truth, deceit and justice; and feelings of jealousy, love and revenge. Can a robot be conscious? What makes us human? In a sentence the novel is about moral choices.

But perhaps this makes it sound rather dry and academic. I assure you that the novel is entertaining, playful and provocative. Like McEwan’s other fiction, Machines Like Me is also well-researched. He studies a subject in detail (in this case a particular aspect of the law, and the early history of AI) before he writes about it in a novel. This adds interest to his writing. And he writes so well, engaging the reader in the turns and twists of the story.

Lance Christopher

PS Books can be bought as paper copies, or as eBooks via Kindle, and can also be borrowed digitally and, once the coronavirus lockdown has passed, as print copies, from Wiltshire libraries.

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