Ian McEwan’s newest novel Sweet Tooth is not his first fiction set during the era of Cold War espionage. More than twenty-years ago, he published The Innocent about a British electrician turned Berlin spy. It’s a more sober take on the spy industry than the lighter Sweet Tooth and seemed more interesting to me. In addition, although Sweet Tooth is being praised, it’s flawed, according to some critics — Publisher’s Weekly in its August 2012 forecast gave the novel a negative review, and Maureen Corrigan more recently called McEwan out on his nasty tone. All this said, I got distracted with another one of McEwan’s novels that I found along my way to picking up The Innocent. In full disclosure, it wasn’t the story line alone that interested me, but also, having read a few tomes, the small page count — Black Dogs is less than 200 pages.
It’s a tightly focused novel about a married British couple who live separately due to ideological differences developed shortly after their wedding in 1946: the husband, Bernard Tremaine, is steadfastly invested in communist philosophy, and his wife, June, once his partner in the communist cause, unexpectedly turns to God and a spiritual life after a frightening and illuminating experience. That experience involves the black dogs of the book’s title, former Nazi Gestapo-trained creatures running wild in southern France after World War II. During the Tremaine’s honeymoon, on a hiking tour, June wanders off alone and fights off an attack by the dogs. Only, there’s no mere survival here, rather an encounter with evil and a saving light.
Narrated by their son-in-law Jeremy, who’s writing June’s memoir that morphs into a biography that morphs into a divagation, the story resonates with engaging family intimacy, as well as politics and events from 1946 to 1989. In one part of the book, Jeremy meets with June in 1987 during her last days in hospice care. In another, he travels to the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 with Bernard to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in another, he tells the story of how he met his wife, Jenny Tremaine, in 1981.
It is not until the last section of the book that Jeremy explains in full June’s encounter with the dogs, when she believes she came face to face with evil. At one point, Jeremy finds two pages of shorthand dating from the last conversation he had with June, a month before she died, where she says:
“‘The evil I’m talking about lives in us all. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself. Then it sinks back and waits. It’s something in our hearts.
“‘I can see you think I’m a crank. It doesn’t matter. This is what I know. Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, consciousness itself — call it what you like — in the end, it’s all we’ve got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish. My own small discovery has been that this change is possible, it is within our power. Without a revolution of the inner life, however slow, all our big designs are worthless. The work we have to do is with ourselves if we’re ever going to be at peace with each other. I’m not saying it’ll happen. There’s a good chance it won’t. I’m saying it’s our only chance. If it does, and it could take generations, the good that flows from it will shape our societies in an unprogrammed, unforeseen way, under the control of no single group of people or set of ideas…’”
Bernard accuses June of mythologizing the dogs and engaging in hocus pocus. His own revolution is of another kind, indicated in a rebuttal that Jeremy imagines: “‘As for the inner life, my dear boy, try having one of those on an empty stomach. Or without clean water. Or when you’re sharing a room with seven others.'”
The power of Black Dogs resides in how McEwan plays Bernard and June against one another through Jeremy’s relationship with each of them, probing fantasy versus reality and how we bend facts to fit an idea. It moves slowly, but the pace fits the short page count, as well as the emphasis not on drama but the characters’ relationships and philosophies. In the end, it’s left to you, the reader, to decide what you think about Bernard’s idealistic politics and June’s black dogs. Either way, you’ll find yourself pondering the separate beliefs of this unusual fictional couple, and the existence of those roaming black dogs.