This blog is at serious risk of becoming an Ian McEwan fan blog. There is nothing that can be done. Especially when there are free Ian McEwan (and to be fair, Margaret Atwood and Peter Carey) novels on offer from our neighbours.
I realise I am and doing my Ian McEwan reading backwards, from Atonement onwards. I had a very strong reaction to Atonement, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, which has made me approach his other books with caution and a healthy dose of scepticism. However, now that I know what to expect and how much to believe – i.e., expect anything, and believe nothing – I find I love his novels. Black Dogs didn’t require the guard though – in the sense that there is no great trick, just some light themes of the flaws of memory and story-telling, and simple old fashioned suspense.
Like Enduring Love and Atonement, this story is centred around a defining significant event that has a long-lasting impact on the characters’ lives, namely, the narrator’s mother-in-law’s terrifying encounter with two enormous savage black dogs. The narrator, Jeremy, a now-grown orphan who likes to adopt parents, becomes close with his in-laws, and decides to write a memoir about his mother-in-law, June. June’s life, as she sees it, is vastly defined by her encounter with the dogs in post-war France on her honeymoon in 1946 – it alters her politics, and turns her towards the divine and supernatural, and against her ever rationalising new husband, Bernard. As they each tell Jeremy about their early relationship and marriage, the novel explores aspects of human nature, how to reconcile the rational and practical against the supernatural, against primal subconscious violence, and how these aspects have played out in post-war Europe.
Underlying the story of the parents-in-law is that of Jeremy himself, who, having lost his parents at age 8, was raised in the violent household of his sister and her then-husband, as well as their young daughter Sally. Sally later herself grew up violent and suffered from addiction.
Told in the late 1980s, partly in Berlin in the days of the wall being brought down, perhaps the personal story is a metaphor for our history, how the destruction and violent past during the war was still being felt and bourne out towards the close of the century. Or perhaps that the in-laws are themselves a metaphor for the people of Berlin, or Europe, or even the world – completely interconnected, but separated by their ideology and trauma.
Has anyone else read this one? What did you think?