The book is comprised of 5 individual-yet-connected parts. The first is built as a preface, and it explains the origins Jeremy’s (the narrator) obsession with other people’s parents. In the second we meet June Tremain in a resting home – old and tired – and her conversations with Jeremy as he tries to write a memoir of her life. The third part is dedicated to Jeremy’s trip with Bernard Tremain to Berlin the day after the wall fell, the fourth is dedicated to Jeremy’s and July’s first encounter (July being, of course, the Tremains’ daughters) and finally, the fifth part is set in 1946 and is centered on the event which generated the family myth of the black dogs.
The black dogs – mentioned by June, Bernard and July are explained only in the end. But they are, seemingly, the reason why June and Bernard, though very much in love, don’t stay together and don’t separated definitively. Bernard, a man of crude facts, a communist (as much as a middle class westerner can be a communist) for 10 years (he resigns after USSR invades Hungary in 1956) and later on a moderately successful politician is the embodiment of realism and logic. June, though a communist herself (only for a few months, until the ill-fated apparition of the dogs) grows to become a very spiritual being to the point of the occasional exaltation. Her fascination with the supernatural is only matched by Bernard’s with all that is earthy and scientifically explainable and, as time passes, their chosen ways are clearly split. Though not speaking all too often (Jeremy is sometimes used to carry messages between them) and though professing some sort of hatred towards each other, they will, until their deaths, still love each other. Which is, in a way, very touching.
Aside from the Tremain family story – or rather entwined with it, Mr. McEwan revisits some of the most influential or violent moments of the 20th century – WWII, concentration camps, communism and its initial appeal and fascination, and the fall of the Berlin wall. This last one is actually at the center of the third part and is my favourite bit of the book because the description and the imagery is so vivid that you almost feel like an actual spectator.
As far as the dogs go, I stand more on Bernard’s side. June did experience something that day (2 black dogs attacked her on a deserted road – but for her, it’s not so much the attack as the seemingly unnatural size of the animals), but, in retrospect she chose (maybe unconsciously) to project on just that particular event a change, an alteration in her feelings and attitudes that, in fact, happened over time. I suppose it’s easier this way – to have a revelation or some sort of God given sight or mission (very Paul on the road to Damascus like) – than to deal with the fact that you have simply distanced yourself from the one you loved, that you no longer want the same things, or, even worse, that you never truly did. In the end, the black dogs also stand for something darker and deeper – maybe for violence itself, as June and Bernard lived through all those terrible and devastating times modern Europe has known in the past half-century.
So far (and “far” means after reading 2-out-of-the-I-don’t-know-how-many books he’s written) I have Ian McEwan pegged as a bit of a ‘philosopher’ for the masses, a crowd pleaser. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy his books (I am part of that pleased crowd 😀 ), but that his characters are very easy to relate to. What happens to them, what changes their lives – it’s easy to empathise with, while at the same time it doesn’t give the impression of facile. You feel like he’s left you with something to ponder over – just enough to fit into a otherwise busy life.
And, in totally unrelated events: Ronnie O’Sullivan will be facing either Joe Perry or Ali Carter (close call that one) in the World Championship final. And my lack of TV induced frustration grows, as Ronnie produced this kind of performance, and I could only read the Eurosport comments (still, it’s good to have at least those 😀 ).
LATER EDIT: Lack of TV induced frustration is now 0 <:-P . I finally found this and saw the Carter – Perry (17-15) semifinal on live streaming. It was a good session and Ali Carter will face off Ronnie in the final. But if Ronnie plays like he did til now, I don’t think Carter holds a chance. We’ll see tomorrow 😉