Ian McEwan — along with Peter Ackroyd the most impressive novelist of Britain’s boomer generation — writes long, meticulous sentences that draw you in with their claustrophobic intensity. He reimagined Venice in The Comfort of Strangers and 1950s Berlin in The Innocent as deadly labyrinths in which evil sounds a louder echo than the people who are its agents. Like Graham Greene, McEwan writes serious entertainments motored by suspense; the payoff is less a soothing catharsis than a sustained lament for missed connections and failed lives.
Black Dogs is at once characteristic McEwan and a departure. Writing in the first person, in the style of a memoir, McEwan has produced a mellow, somewhat discursive surface that conceals the broiling undercurrent of Cold War Europe. As one might expect, the inevitable violent collision is saved for the end, but getting to it involves side trips that span the years from the Communist bicycle clubs of the late ’30s to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and after. Indeed, before the narrative proper begins, we have a preface exploring the adolescence of the narrator, Jeremy, an orphan who develops a propensity for adopting the well-off parents of his rebellious contemporaries. Since he describes his adolescence as lacking in beliefs or ”attachments,” you half expect him to blossom into full-bodied amorality, on the order of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. The book’s first shocker is the news that, except for Jeremy, none of the characters so deftly introduced in the preface ”play a part in what follows.”
The preface is Jeremy’s attempt to explain his obsessive interest in the acrimonious marriage of his wife’s parents, June and Bernard Tremaine, which makes up the body of the novel. Seemingly secure in his own marriage, Jeremy is drawn to his in-laws, with their fiercely held attachments and beliefs. Black Dogs is their story — June, the mystic inquisitor, and Bernard, the rationalist social planner. Only secondarily is it the story of their biographer, who is haunted by them and unnerved by the fine line between probing and prying. When June, dying in a nursing home, mentions that Bernard ”took a small penis size” (as though “mere obstinacy,” Jeremy muses, ”had prevented him from ordering something more capacious”), Jeremy is grateful that he works in shorthand: ”On tape it would have been simple evidence of a betrayal, one that I would have needed to keep in a locked cupboard.”
June and Bernard met in the War Office, became Communists, married, and embarked on a honeymoon walking tour of France. Bernard, an amateur entomologist, Labour Party MP, and political pundit, remained with the party until 1956. June left it after a few months as a result of the defining experience of her life, a religious conversion that followed an encounter with two black dogs on a deserted path near a French sheepfold. Ultimately, her conversion became an impenetrable wall between herself and Bernard, and it is the separate realities to which they cling that fascinates Jeremy.
The first half of the novel is a dialogue of ideas, or betrayals, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s anatomy of marriage, The Genius and the Goddess. June is disgusted with Bernard’s belief that science can cure the world’s ”wretchedness”; Bernard is embarrassed by June’s ”unbounded credulousness,” her eagerness to buy into the bywords of mysticism.
It would be a betrayal of the reader to reveal McEwan’s virtuosic denouement, an exquisitely tense filling out of the anecdote of the black dogs, except to note that he and Jeremy appear to reconcile the Tremaines by placing them in opposition to the demonstrable, prowling evil at large in the world. More than irony is at stake in scenes set at the Polish concentration camp at Majdanek, where as of 1981 officials still refuse to acknowledge the Jewishness of the victims; or the Berlin Wall, where even at the moment of liberation neo-Nazis jeer, ”Foreigners out.” McEwan’s narratives are small and focused, but resonate far into the night. A