On a walking holiday (and honeymoon) in early post-war southern France, a young idealistic woman, June Tremaine, is terrified by an encounter with two menacing attack dogs. This incident leads in turn to a spiritual experience and changes her life. Surprisingly she decides on an apparent whim to live in France (very near to the scene of the attacK), in the process effectively separating from her new husband, Bernard.
This incident is the kernel around which McEwan winds this novel. Ostensibly a memoir written by June and Bernard’s son-in law, written shortly after June’s death, this novel has a complex narrative structure in which the telling of the tale is delayed time after time. The dogs themselves carry a heavy symbolic burden that they couldn’t quite bear – we know from the early pages that however scary they may be they do not carry out their attack (or at least that June survives to go on and have a family). And in fact it is not the encounter with the dogs which is the turning point in June’s life, but the spiritual epiphany which follows. While we can be gripped and menaced by the dogs, June’s quasi-religious response is not one the reader can easily follow or identify with.
If you have been scared out of your wits, and feel that your survival is a result of divine intervention, and that you need to rethink your life choices as a result – fine – but June’s response, essentially settling in a farmhouse in rural France and having a very nice, fundamentally selfish and not particularly spiritual life for the rest of your days, doesn’t seem to be a coherent response.
The scenes in Berlin as the Wall is coming down, something that obviously has an especial resonance for McEwan, contrast strikingly with the views of France. If a point is being made here – other than the mundane “war is brutalising and nasty” I couldn’t spot it. War has ravaged and damaged France, but the area the couple visit on their walking holiday seems largely untouched, even though the spectral presence of the black dogs is a reminder of the damage the war has done. But other than providing “colour” I didn’t understand why the scenes in Berlin in which the narrator hears a different version of the story of June and Bernard’s marriage needs to have the backdrop of the fall of the Wall.
McEwan can be forgiven some misses among the many hits. This isn’t his worst novel – I still struggle to accept just how silly “Amsterdam” was and is – but others are far more coherent and interesting. I don’t normally do this but one comment from an Amazon reviewer jumped off the screen as spot on – “there is also the idea that McEwan perhaps had a deeper vision he has failed to communicate.”