Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Just read Black Dogs by Ian McEwan. Now, I've got a love-hate relationship with Ian McEwan. I've found some of his books dazzlingly brilliant (On Chesil Beach, Atonement, The Child In Time, The Cement Garden) and others that I thought were deeply flawed and disappointing (Amsterdam, Enduring Love).

Black Dogs? Well, it was somewhere between the two. It's a slender little volume, barely more than a novella, and introduces some of the themes that also occur in his later novella On Chesil Beach. Both books, for instance, are about newly-weds, both set in a time where personal relationships were perhaps more fraught with awkwardness and embarrassment than they are today, and both revolve around single honeymoon incident which has a profound and irrevocable effect on a couple's life together. In Black Dogs, the incident involves the black dogs of the title, whose origins are unclear and which take on an almost mythical status as their story is passed from one character to another.

Winston Churchill, of course, famously referred to depression as 'the black dog' that plagued him, refusing to leave, and I don't think the reference is accidental on McEwan's part. This, in fact, was what initially made me pick up the book. June, the young post-war honeymooner whose encounter with the black dogs is pivotal to her life, turns to spirituality to overcome their lingering effects, which eventually causes her to part from Bernard, her uber-rational, intellectual husband, for good. The book is partly about this incident, which haunts not just June and Bernard but subsequent generations of their family, including their son-in-law as he comes to write June's memoir for her after her death. It's the son-in-law who narrates the novel and who also experiences a turning-point incident of his own while retracing June and Bermard's steps through France.

actually found it hard to put this book down, and I was completely engaged with all the characters right from the first page. The writing is beautiful - stark, sharply accurate, sparse, never flowery and occasionally darkly humorous, reminding me slightly of my all-time literary hero, George Orwell - and not a word is wasted. And yet I still found something lacking. Hard to pinpoint exactly what, though. Possibly, I think, that I lacked all sympathy with June's reaction to her experience (being the least spiritual person in the world myself) and was firmly on Bernard's side. Or possibly that these people were so bloody middle-class and smug (really, in most cases, if a couple separates, neither of them has the option to flit off to a second home in the form of a cottage in the south of France) that I found it hard to identify with them or, to be quite honest, care.


  1. really, in most cases, if a couple separates, neither of them has the option to flit off to a second home in the form of a cottage in the south of France

    This is difficult for me to swallow, perhaps because, as you say, the overwhelming majority of us don't have that option. And oddly, I read a book review today that was positive, but I won't read the book for much this same reason. A woman and her two daughters are all having personal crises, two of which involve infidelity, and they've come to gather at a Connecticut home.

    Who was such a picturesque place in which to "recover" and "meditate" on their life? And secondly, who the fuck has the time? We're talking weeks and months.

    I also have to say that I'm a bit tired of this plot device being used in fiction. Something terrible happens, and our protagonist flits off somewhere picturesque for some serious introspection. How nice for them.

    How utterly unrealistic for the rest of us.

    As you know, I really can't wait for your opinion of Cryptonomicon. So, what? You'll have your review of it before you leave? ;)


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