The third of my recent McEwan catch up exercise, prompted by a Waterstones promotion – who says marketing schemes don’t work?
The review I roughed out in my mind mid way through this novel is a very different beast from what I am now about to write. Let me explain.
The principal narrator of the novel, Joe Rose (there are other voices but the bulk of the novel is described from his point of view) is involved in a tragic ballooning accident in which a man dies. A fellow participant in this accident develops an obsessive delusion – that he is in love with Rose – and begins to stalk him.
There are consistent hints throughout the novel that Rose’s account of the accident is flawed. Sometimes these hints are more heavy handed than others The accident victim’s widow is torn apart at the thought that her husband was having an affair, and wouldn’t have been at the site of the accident if he was not having a clandestine meeting with his lover. She sees the accident as a judgment on his fidelity, showing off to his young mistress. We later learn he was not having an affair, and the circumstantial evidence to that effect is explained away innocently. Later in the novel a shooting in a restaurant is shown through Rose’s eyes, but the deconstruction of this incident by a police officer makes it clear that none of the witnesses saw the same thing, even down to what flavour ice cream they ate. There are many more subtle hints that perception is flawed, and that what Rose describes during and after the accident may not be the whole story – in fact, that he may be the delusional one. Even his partner struggles to believe his account of his being stalked, pointing out that the writing on the letters sent to him by his stalker, Jed Parry, looks remarkably similar to his own – one of many such strange coincidences.
I patiently waited for the reveal, the moment at which we learn what “really” happened, the extent of Rose’s self delusion. Rose is a writer on popular science, and digresses at length about the mind’s ability to deceive itself. Surely that is what is going on here – the accident didn’t happen in a way in which he is completely blameless, and has excised any possible suggestion of responsibility from his account.
But it’s not. In a classic double bluff, everything Rose tells us is true. The big reveal is that there is nothing behind the curtain. Everyone else in the novel is deluded or mistaken to some extent or another, including the police, his partner, the widow, his stalker, you name it. The police assume that an attempt on his life, in which a fellow diner is shot in error, was correctly targeted because the victim was the subject of a failed assassination attempt the previous year. Now there’s a coincidence – a contract killing misses its target and instead falls upon a diner at the next table who only months before had been the target of an earlier murder attempt.
Is this McEwan messing with us, setting up expectations only to kick them out from under our feet? I have become so used to the sudden changes of focus in McEwan’s novels, “Sweet Tooth” being a fantastically effective example of this, that to be deprived of one felt wrong.
The novel is not without merit of course. The relationship between Rose and Clarissa seemed genuine. I thought the “going to buy a gun from some hippies” scene was bizarre and out of character with the realism of previous scenes. The digressions on Romantic poetry, popular science, etc were undemanding and integrated well into the overall narrative.
Does love endure? Or is it one big delusion? The only love that lasts in this novel is the product of a psychiatric illness, a delusion that has no foundation in reality. Rose’s relationship with his partner, Clarissa, the portrait of which is one of the principal strengths of the novel, is strong and loving, but does not survive the stress of the stalking and its denouncement. But this novel isn’t an essay on love, more on big game of hide and seek between the author and the reader, with “reality” out there in plain sight all along.