Jan/Feb 1999 Book Reviews

Black Dogs

Ian McEwan
Random House, (November 1998)
ISBN: 0 09 927708 5
A$17.95 (paperback) 174 pages

reviewed by Ann Skea

There seems to be a fashion in recent novels for confusing the reader about the identity of the story-teller - for blurring the lines between fact and fiction, autobiography and biography, reality and fantasy. Perhaps this has always been so to some extent, but it was easier to tell, for example, that Gulliver's record of his travels was not a genuine travelogue, and at least Swift named his narrator. Ian McEwan confuses matters more than usual in this book by calling the first chapter 'Preface', making it sound auto-biographical, and leaving his narrator un-named throughout. The story, too, could well be true, and only the careful construction of the re-telling of events and the unusual sharing of intimate secrets between a woman and her son-in-law hints that it is not. But unlikely things do happen. And what good writer does not shape his or her story - whether it be true or invented?

All of which shows that McEwan's narrator in Black Dogs sounds completely plausible and is consistently believable in his role and in his story.

The story itself revolves around a dramatic and terrifying event which changed the whole life of the narrator's mother-in-law, affecting her rather as Paul's vision on the Road to Damascus did him, although the experience was one of darkness, not of light. Her experience was not shared by her husband, Bernard, and her re-evaluation of life's goals, her beliefs and her life-style is in direct conflict with his own pragmatic, scientific and materialistic beliefs. So, in spite of an enduring love and attachment, the couple part and pursue their own lives, causing various problems for their children.

June, the mother-in-law, is an elderly woman when we meet her. She lives in a nursing-home, but this does not mean she has abandoned her identity, beliefs or self-respect. Nor does she allow others to patronise her. She is a likeable character who communicates well with her son-in-law. Bernard, too, is an elderly man who retains his dignity, independence and individuality.

Both June and Bernard were once members of the Communist Party, both had been involved in war work in England, and the event which changed June's life took place just after the war's end, in France. The couple were there on honeymoon after working with Red Cross relief workers in Italy, and it was there that June became pregnant with their first child, who is now the narrator's wife. June believes that the Black Dogs directly affected her child.

I always thought Winston Churchill's "Black Dog" was depression. But according to the story-teller in this book "Black Dogs" are something much more sinister, and they are something which is not really explained until the end of the story. I am not about to reveal the secret.

Differences in class, dramatic political and social change, power and evil, are all sub-texts to the story, but this never overwhelms the human interest. Curiosity holds the narrator and the reader until they finally know just what did happen to June and are left to make up their own minds whether June or Bernard had the right response to the Black Dogs.

Black Dogs is curious and at times unpleasant. In the end, you can, as Bernard would, dismiss it as just a story, or, like June, you can look deeper and ponder the ideas further.


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