by Ian McEwan
This is a story of love in all its forms, and both how painful and how uplifting that love can be. It also manages to be a compelling thriller, beginning with an event that sets wheels in motion for a series of misfortunes, building up to a dramatic climax.
Clarissa and Joe are happy, utterly in love after many years together. While at a picnic, they unwittingly become part of a terrible accident. At first it seems that the rest of the book will be them coming to terms with tragedy. But it quickly turns out to be something else, or at least, as the narrator, Joe keeps insisting that something else is going on, but Clarissa and the police don’t believe him. Is this a classic case of the unreliable narrator? Or is there a genuine terror stalking Joe and Clarissa, ready to erupt at any time?
For a start, Joe is easily lost in daydreams or work-related thoughts from the reality at hand. From the first page he is challenging his own memory. Did it happen the way he describes? He knows certain details conflict with other witness accounts gathered by the police and Clarissa’s memory. He says, “I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible.”
Joe is a freelance science writer, a successful one, but also a man who feels that he made a mistake leaving research behind, so he is not entirely happy with where he is. He loves Clarissa unreservedly but she is unable to have children, which has always been a huge source of pain for them both. It’s a set-up that allows pure happiness to fall apart very quickly.
Through a psychological thriller framework, McEwan examines relationship love, parental love, religious love (though only at the extreme end), the love shared in friendship, sibling love (quite briefly) and obsessive love. It also examines a few forms of psychological instability, from the uncertainties of grief through to a far more troubling example.
McEwan writes well and keeps the possibilities open as he carries us along to the climax. In true thriller style, the augurs are all there that something is coming, but as a literary novel you know that the actual ending may be a more mundane realisation of truth.
I didn’t greatly like Joe. He is a bit dismissive of Clarissa, even condescending at times. While he has acquired tidbits of knowledge from far outside his original physics training, he seems to assume Clarissa’s only interests are her scholarly work on Keats, and children. I’m not sure if this is a failing of the character or of McEwan. Certainly, neither of the other female characters comes off well from Joe’s descriptions either. One is a widow too distracted by her loss to pay attention to her children, the other essentially a bimbo. I hope the problem is Joe’s.
Interestingly, although this all sounds plot-driven, despite having watched the film made of this book a few years back, I could not remember where it was going. Perhaps that’s just my memory, or the film was somehow incoherent, but perhaps it is because this book is sneakily about the writing after all: “What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness.”
First published 1997 by Jonathan Cape.