Friederike Knabe's Reviews > Black Dogs

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
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Jul 27, 2012

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bookshelves: uk-lit
Read in October, 2010

"Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people's parents..." Jeremy, first person narrator in Ian McEwan's BLACK DOGS, finds what he is searching for in the parents of his wife Jenny, June and Bernard Tremaine. Placing the exploration of his in-laws' complicated relationship over five decades at the story's core around which the philosophical, spiritual and moral themes are continually gyrating, McEwan masterfully dissects the private sphere within and against the context of political developments in post-war Europe.

Jeremy, having agreed to assist the now ailing June to write her memoir, attempts to reach beyond her version of memories, by talking, in parallel to Bernard. For a better understanding of his own relationships, he needs to lead the couple back to the root-cause for their estrangement that has torn them apart, despite the strong emotional ties that have kept them, at times painfully, connected. McEwan's narration moves fluidly back and forth between the present discussions between June and Jeremy and the various pertinent timelines, going back to 1946 and the couple's honeymoon in a remote region of southern France. The black dogs of the title, introduced early on in the "Preface", reappear persistently throughout whether in June's dreams or in her recalling their appearance that so frightened her back then. While the actual circumstances are only revealed at the end of the book, in June's mind the dogs have evolved into something much more fundamental for her: a symbol of Menace and Evil that she has to counteract spiritually as best as she can.

There is much in this brief novel to capture the attention and imagination of the reader. The evocation of June's sense of happiness and fearful foreboding set against the beautiful, yet menacing barren landscape, is exquisite. McEwan convincingly contrasts June's and Bernard's opposing characters that the deep ties cannot mediate. "...a silly occultist and [...]a fish-eyed commissar.." is June's apt definition. Jeremy is a sensitively depicted, pleasant enough character who "is found by love" in his late thirties. However, several aspects of the book jarred for me and reduced the full engagement with the story and the characters. For example, the Preface reveals much important context beyond Jeremy, his relation to his wife and family and the events that led June and Bernard to move their lives into different directions: it already touches upon the core issues of the novel that might have had more impact on me were they to unfold slowly over the course of the narration. Furthermore, the novel's structure into four distinct Parts, deliberately disrupts the main narrative flows. While these on the one hand allowing for a deeper exploration of specific time periods and political events, for example, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, they seem, on the other, to skew the balance of importance that these events might have for the essence of the novel. Within the selection of these expansive semi-autonomous sub-stories we find some less than probable and/or extreme circumstances that are in danger of reducing the authenticity of other aspects of the novel and, for this reader, affect the overall enjoyment of the book. Without revealing any story details, nothing more can be said about these here. However, the issue of balance between primary story and semi-autonomous sub-story becomes more prominent in later McEwan novels, for example Atonement: A Novel.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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David Egan A fine review.

Friederike Knabe David wrote: "A fine review."

Thanks David.

switterbug (Betsey) Great review.

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