Black Dogs | Ian McEwan

Books | Review

fiction | historical fiction | novel | literature

First published 1992

Winston Churchill called his depression the Black Dog, and in this novel McEwan's heroine uses the term to refer to something much bigger and more threatening: darkness, evil and irrationality. They are metaphors, used to turn this fictional memoir into a reflection on Europe's past and future.

Our protagonist, Jeremy, is writing a memoir about his parents-in-law, Bernard and June Tremaine. Jeremy's own parents died in a car accident when he was a child, and he has been obsessed with other people's families ever since. He wants to understand why the Tremaines spent most of their lives apart, living in different countries, and how they allowed their ideological differences to overpower their love.

He speaks to Bernard and June separately, piecing together their story from the conflicting tales they tell him. The couple met in London in 1944, fell in love, married at the end of the war and honeymooned in France. At the time, both Bernard and June were committed Communists, but during their honeymoon something happens that changes June's mind and she renounces Communism. This change leaves the couple divided, and although Bernard continues to believe in Communism until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the couple are never reunited in their beliefs.

But what was it that led June to denounce everything she believed in? June's version of events, as told to Jeremy, is that she and Bernard were walking through the south of France on their honeymoon when she saw two huge black dogs. They threatened to attack her and she had to defend herself with a knife. The dogs were later revealed to be Gestapo dogs, and June interprets this as a sign, awakening in her a desire for God.

Jeremy accompanies Bernard to Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall, and they encounter a group of neo-Nazi thugs shouting "Ausländer Raus" at Checkpoint Charlie. This is another metaphor for post-Cold War Europe and the fact that its future is inextricably linked to its dark past.

My Verdict: Is Ian McEwan one of Britain's most interesting writers? I'd say yes, but that's because I've been a huge fan since I was a teenager and Atonement is one of my favourite books of all time. Black Dogs requires the reader to have some knowledge of Berlin (lucky me!), but it also raises difficult questions that really don't have answers. McEwan focuses on the ambiguities of life, love, relationships, history and politics and this book raises many interesting points and leaves you wanting to know more. 

Review Award | 3.5/5

Posted 11.05.2023

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