The Mysteries Lurking in Mind



Black Dogs, By Ian McEwan


I still find it odd that some (if not most) people will never re-read a book. I’ve just re-read this one because it was my first McEwan and I was so unfamiliar with his odd story structure that the essence of the book didn’t stay with me. But that was something like ten years ago. I like to think I’ve grown as both reader and writer in that time, so I knew the book would speak volumes to me now.

It does. But given that you might not have read it, a little something about the storyline.

English couple June and Bernard Tremaine are former Communists who have married immediately following WWII, Jenny their daughter, who subsequently marries the story’s narrator, Jeremy. By the time Jeremy and Jenny marry, the parents are separated, and Jeremy is fascinated with both, who use their son-in-law as a conduit to one another. By now both have forsaken communism, Bernard for something of a secular humanist approach to life, June immersed in spiritual practices. The book’s – and Jeremy’s – project is to discover the nature of their growing apart, presumably as a tool of understanding to prevent something similar from happening to Jenny and him. On the way to such understanding, Jeremy unearths the singular moment of the older couple’s division, an event occurring in France’s Midi, involving a pair of black dogs.


McEwan weaves his story back and forth in time and centers it on the heady days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The narrator’s tone here is one of reasoned detachment, but that does little to erase the mystery of June’s experience with these black dogs, an event the Bernard didn’t witness and wishes to rationalize away.

Here the author personalizes the eternal conflict between human experience and humanity’s fascination with what might lie beyond such experience. It’s a skillful, tastefully told tale, measured as perhaps only McEwan can do today in giving us literary insight.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars





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2 thoughts on “The Mysteries Lurking in Mind

  1. Bob, Katherine and I will have to check this out. How would you compare this book to his others? On Chesil Beach, Saturday and Atonement?


  2. Voice-wise, Steve, it’s pretty much the same as the others, and I really like his novellas, such as this one, because he knows how to pack a lot into them. Much literature has much to do with philosophy, and he blends them here in a way I don’t see in his other books. His ability to find new ways to dish out backstory is one of his best technical skills, I think, and this one seems uniquely done in that respect.
    What is real – and unreal – in the corporeal realm is an interesting question, but he’s a brave soul here in taking on the metaphysical realm in the same breath. An extremely interesting way to think about both.

    Saturday was structured much the same as Black Dogs, and centered about a moment of history. He seems to like to weave his stories into the more momentous historical events, and he certainly did that in Atonement, but in a more postmodern way. Chesil Beach, not so much, more about an era than an historical moment or event.

    I suspect you’ll want to read Black Dogs, then set it aside and read it again a few months later. It challenges a lot of western thought – the western, post-WWII mind-set, capitalism, Communism, spirituality, politics – it’s all there, and cast in a slyly provocative manner.

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