28. ‘Black Dogs’ by Ian McEwan

I was cleaning out under the bed and found this novel along with a few others by McEwan that I had bought some time back at a thrift store. It seemed like a good a time as any to revisit this fascinating author. McEwan certainly seems to dominate the 1001 list as he has more titles on it than any other living author (I think the total is 7). As with The Cement GardenI found this to be an engaging read that explores some weighty issues for such a short novel. McEwan’s gift of using dark metaphors to explore the human condition is phenomenal. He also recognizes the importance of the opening line, as this book hooked me right from the start.

The black dogs of the title come from the name Winston Churchill gave to his depressions. As used by the heroine of this novel, they refer to something more encompassing as stated with this quote: “So June´s idea was that if one dog was a personal depression, two dogs were a kind of cultural depression, civilization´s worst moods.” Set against the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, McEwan attempts to explore not only the scars of the Tremaine’s marriage but also of Europe itself, having never recovered from World War II.

Black Dogs tells the story of Bernard and June Tremaine through the eyes of their son-in-law, Jeremy, who is writing a memoir of their lives together. Having lost his own parents at a young age, Jeremy’s obsession with his wife’s parents have sometimes impeded his own marriage. Spending years attempting to complete this memoir, Jeremy tries to understand the reasons behind the strange marriage of his in-laws. For one thing, they have spent the better part of their marriage living in different countries. Jeremy cannot understand why they have let philosophical differences hinder their lives.At the time of their marriage, Bernard and June were both Communists. While on a walk during their honeymoon, something happens that shakes June’s beliefs to their core. This results in June turning her back on rational thinking and embracing spiritualism. Although Bernard later renounces Communism himself, he never abandons his rationalism. The two have lived apart ever since.

McEwan finally reveals the specific incident that occurred during that fated honeymoon. Like the previous novel I read, The Cement Garden, the event is very frightening. McEwan has a gift for capturing the macabre. I thought the writing was much stronger here than in the previous effort, which makes sense given that this is a later work. The two are similar in creating a deeply compelling look at relationships, shrouded in metaphor. Black Dogs is a little novel tackling some huge ideas.

“It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. Its ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all – who they married, the date of their death – with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.”

 

 

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