Somehow, over the years, I’ve read five novels by Ian McEwan. Not such an astonishing fact, except that he is far from being my favourite novelist – I admire quite a few of them, really like some, dislike others. And, thinking about it, four of those five have been read for book groups or similar – including Black Dogs which I finished (and, indeed, started) today.
It certainly battles out with Atonement for being my favourite McEwan – people have recommended ‘early McEwan’ to me, and I can see why. The writing here is compact, tense – so often I’d finish reading paragraphs or phrases and think “wow” – quite the opposite of Saturday.
Black Dogs centres around an incident which happened on a couple’s honeymoon, involving the dogs in question. We spend most of the novel knowing that something took place, but not knowing what, so I shan’t spoil it for you – the novel is filled with the impact and effects of the event. June and Bernard are the central couple – both old by the ‘present day’, both recounting their lives to the narrator, Jeremy, who is writing a sort of biography. We flit back to their youth, forward to their separate old age, to Jeremy’s life and marriage (to their daughter). Bernard is an ex-Communist whose narrow ideology cannot be made compatible with June’s spiritual ‘conversion’. I give that word inverted commas as, though June is supposed to represent ‘religion’ in the novel, she never does much other than embrace a hazy spirituality.
Nevertheless, she is the novel’s most interesting character, one with more depth than the rest. It is particularly to see her in an old people’s home; how disorientated she is: ‘In the few seconds that it took to approach slowly and set down my bag, she had to reconstruct her whole existence, who and where she was, how and why she came to be in this small white-walled room. Only when she had all that could she begin to remember me.’ Makes me want to watch Away From Her again…
Perhaps the most intriguing bit of the book is something Jeremy thinks, when researching the lives of June and Bernard: ‘Turning points are the inventions of story-tellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth.’ If McEwan is anything, he is the novelist of turning points. And usually very good with this technique, I must say – why is he arguing against it here, I wonder?
All in all, I thought it was very good – not much of a linear plot, more vignettes pulled together by the centring force of the Black Dogs incident. Some incredibly taut language and effective writing. I should add, however, that the majority of the group’s response at book group was middling or negative – but we all agreed it was better than Saturday!
For the benefit of those who have found their way here from the book group, here are the links to other Book Group Books which I’ve written about here…. not as many as I’d thought. And, for anyone interested, this is the book group’s website. Very nice it is too.