Ian McEwan: Black Dogs

In 1946, a young couple sets off on their honeymoon. Fired by their ideals and passion for one another, they plan an idyllic holiday, only to encounter an experience of darkness so terrifiying, it alters their lives forever.

Quoth the blurb.

It’s my fourth Ian McEwan after Atonement, Solar and The Children Act. When I read Atonement, I wasn’t much into it and condemned it as kitsch (especially with the movie adaption in mind). Looking back, I was way too young to be ready for it and for McEwan’s overlaying topics and dense prose in general and therefore it’s overdue to be reread, now that I feel more mature as a reader, and do the novel justice. Solar, my second encounter with one of England’s leading novellists, came years later. I hated the protagonist. I loathed him. What a digusting, pig-like unsympathetic person, the kind you wish to spend as little time with as possible. And yet I wanted to continue reading even though it meant hanging out even more with despicable Michael Beard. That was the moment upon which I briefly stopped reading, looked up and nodded approvingly to acknowledg Ian McEwan’s talent before I continued with my literary frenemy. The Children Act, which I read on holiday just a couple of weeks ago, was a dense and tense novel I devoured within hours and I am very excited to see Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci in the 2017 film adaption because a) book and b) Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci! So much to my short literary journey so far with Ian. And now over to Black Dogs.

Black Dogs is one of McEwans earlier novels, first published in 1992. It is set in the aftermath of World War II and tells the story of June and Bernard. It’s presented as a mock memoir written and conducted by their son-in-law Jeremy. It is a story of two very different people in love but not able to overcome neither their differences nor their feelings for each other, which means they are doomed to be apart yet never be truly separated from each other. Or the other way round? I guess toxic is what we’d call it nowadays. It is also the story about one particular event that would change everything for them. “But the next day, and the day after, and on all the succeeding days, they never set foot in the metaphorical landscape of their future. The next day they turned back.”

On one side we have Bernard, a communist who’s firmly settled in the rational world and defending his political believes no matter what: “He’s got facts and figures, he’s always rushing off to give a speech, be on a panel or whatever. But he never reflects. He’s never known a single moment’s awe for the beauty of creation. He hates silence, so he knows nothing.” June, on the contrary, starts off as a communist, too, but is far more attached to the spiritual world, to ideas of karma and whatnot: “She’s got her own ideas and they’re strong and strange.” Pretty sure she’d believe in homeopathy.

With these two characters, the novel explores various topics of opposing nature: religion versus politics, spiritual versus rational believes, fantasy versus reality. It’s never about which of those supersedes the other or has more of a right to be. It’s about the fact that contraries exist, about the struggle to overcome them and the devastating realization that there’s no guarantee you can. Both June and Bernard fail at some point and yet both are too hung up on their side of the aisle that even their strong mutual affection can’t bridge that fundamental gap.

To lighten things up a little, Jeremy and Jenny (the narrator’s wife) seem to be the author’s assurance to the reader that even relations with such contradicting values from each party can work. They are a couple far from over-the-top romanticism and kitsch. On the contrary – their marriage is based on a very profound and solid trust in each other.

“We rolled into a sleepy embrace. Minor reunions like this are one of the more exquisite domestic pleasures. She felt both familiar and novel – how easily one gets used to sleeping alone. […] Her eyes were closed and she half-smiled as she fitted her cheek into the space below my collar bone that seemed to have formed itself over the years to her shape.” So sweet, so simple and so comforting.

The fake preface written by the first-person narrator to account for Jeremy’s motivation of writing his step-mum’s memoirs seems oddly out of place. Jeremy’s obsession with other people’s parents (resulting from losing his own parents back when he was a kid) gives somewhat a reason but I felt it was a bit over the top. The story of June and Bernard is enough, and I for my part didn’t need full accountability for why it was being told.

The first three quarters are basically a very long built-up to the scene we’ve been intrigued with since the title: the encounter with the black dogs.

The Black Dog, synonym of depression, coined by Winston Churchill and associated with all the side effects whilst suffering depression. Choosing that as an eponymic antagonist sets a very distinctive and dark tone. Selected scenes at historically relevant locations add to this atmosphere of the decay of human morality and doom. “What possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?”

The novel is a commentary on different systems of believe, he captures the political moods that defined life in the decades after WW II and he throws in some major and minor wisdoms of humanity, love and life. It’s a recipe for a dense, absorbing and very vexing novel. It leaves so many things unsaid after it went long ways pretending to lead up to some revelation. That is frustrating, sometimes. But if you accept it for what it is, Black Dogs will give you a lot to take in and to think about.

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