The Frontal Cortex

Ian McEwan’s Strange Plot Twist

In the past two years, we’ve been blessed with two remarkable novels about neuroscience and the brain: The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers, and Saturday, by Ian McEwan. Personally, I thought Saturday was the more perfect work, although both books address a similar set of themes. Can science solve consciousness? How do we deal with the fact that there is no soul, and that we are nothing but three pounds of fatty membrane? How does subjective experience arise from the shuttling of ions? In Saturday, McEwan’s protagonist is a neurosurgeon, who, while operating on an exposed brain, ruminates on these weighty questions:

“The wonder will always remain. That mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its center. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?”

I bring up Saturday as a means of introducing a pretty amazing story. Sometimes, life throws us plot twists that, if we read about them in a novel, would just seem too contrived:

The novellist Ian McEwan has discovered that a bricklayer is the older brother he never knew he had, following the man’s quest to uncover his roots.

The revelation emerged that Rose McEwan, the novelist’s mother, had given away Ian’s older brother, Dave, at a railway station. He was conceived by Ian’s father, David, and Rose while she was still married to her first husband.

She had fallen pregnant from her wartime affair with David and wanted to give her baby away before her husband returned home on leave. An advert she placed in a local paper read: “Wanted, home for baby boy, aged one month: complete surrender.” Rose and Percy Sharp were given the baby at Reading railway station, in Berkshire.

Rose married McEwan, the child’s father, then an army officer, after her husband was killed in the Normandy landings.

The couple had their second son, Ian, six years after Dave Sharp had been born.

Ian McEwan, who has another brother, found out about Dave Sharp five years ago after the bricklayer’s inquiries about his past led him to the author’s family. In a statement, Mr McEwan, 58, said it was “a great surprise and pleasure” to discover he had another brother. “We welcomed him and his family into ours and we keep in touch. I am sad he never got the chance to know our parents.”


  1. #1 Ricardo Silva
    January 19, 2007

    “How do we deal with the fact that there is no soul, and that we are nothing but three pounds of fatty membrane?”

    It is an abuse to call it a fact. It is an assumption you are making. A poor one, in fact, I would say!

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