Book Group Report: Black Dogs by Ian McEwan #20booksofsummer24

Do you remember the pre-internet days of ‘Book of the Month’ type clubs (including the Folio Society back then) where you signed up to buy so many books a year etc. There was one called ‘TSP’ The Softback Preview – which specialised in producing softback versions of new hardback books soon after hardback publication, so beating standard paperbacks by months and months, and having an inbetween price too. Effectively you got exactly the same as the hardback bound as a paperback with the dustjacket as cover. This preamble is just to say that my copy of Black Dogs came from TSP, which I was a very enthusiastic purchaser from. I read it back then, and although it was a pleasure to pull a TSP edition back off the shelf, could I remember what the book was about at all? The answer was no, so it was like reading afresh. Black Dogs was published in 1992, it was his fifth novel and seventh book including two earlier sets of short stories.

The novel’s opening line is one I had to read several times to decide whether McEwan was being deliberate in his wordplay, or whether it was a real howler…

‘Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people’s parents.’

See what I mean?

Jeremy is married to Jenny, and he is very close to his in-laws Bernard and June Tremaine. Who had met flirting with Communism and married in the aftermath of WWII. They were honeymooning in rural France in the Languedoc, when June had an encounter with two black dogs which scared her stiff, and it’s not clear for ages whether they were real, figments of her imagination like Churchill’s one or something else. Bernard was so taken up with his idealism that he didn’t notice that June was suffering – and their marriage would soon falter and she would convert, finding God. They never divorced, but lived separately from them on. Now both aged, Jeremy is writing a memoir cum biography of his and their lives, interviewing them separately – getting completely different versions of the same things, including their sex lives (eugh!). Jeremy takes Bernard to Berlin to see the Wall coming down, but instead Bernard gets stuck into a fight and they have to run back to the hotel and then home. Jeremy also tells us about his own life, pre-Jenny – when he lived with his sister Jean and her disturbed daughter Sally, both of whom had been abused by Jean’s ex, we learn nothing about Jenny really at all.

Our book group were all of one mind on Black Dogs, some of us having read McEwan before. We were disappointed with this one because it was a novel of such great ideas, yet was so brief at 175 pages that none of them could be explored fully enough. Whether it was the remnants of evil Nazism, Bernard’s romantic view of Communism, June’s new-found beliefs, the Berlin Wall coming down, and the assorted horrors of Jean and Sally’s lives and the black dogs themselves, there wasn’t enough depth to any of these ideas and we found we didn’t really care about any of the characters either. McEwan’s writing in this book was a bit over-intellectual and self-consciously look-at-me, although there were moments of briliance, like when Jeremy gets ready to ask June for the definitive version of the black dogs story.

It was a story whose historical accuracy was of less significance than the function it served. It was a myth, all the more powerful for being upheld as documentary. June had persuaded herself that ‘the next day’ explained everything – why she left the Party, why she and Bernard fell into a lifetime’s disharmony, why she reconsidered her rationalism, her materialism, how she came to live the life she did, where she lived it, what she thought.

The truth about the black dogs comes towards the end of the novel, which reaches its climax in the Languedoc, I’ll not say more. (But you can read Amanda Craig’s piece in the Literary Review which does spill the beans if you wish).

So not his best, but his worst are better than many others’ bests.

Source: Own copy. Jonathan Cape, 1992, 175 pages.

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9 thoughts on “Book Group Report: Black Dogs by Ian McEwan #20booksofsummer24

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I read it when it came out, too, and have only the sketchiest idea of the contents. I’d definitely forgotten that opening sentence! Things have changed so much in the world, I wonder if it’s a little dated now.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think the first sentence was deliberate, a bit of a ‘gotcha’. In my mind, I had this book mixed up with The Innocent which preceded it, and was expecting cold-war spies and Berlin. It’s not dated too badly, given the historical context.

  2. litlove says:

    I belonged to The Softback Preview too! And for years I had a copy of this Ian McEwan without reading it. I have a nasty feeling it went in one of the charity boxes. Funnily enough, I have just put him on my wishlist for Amsterdam, which I’ve recently become interested in (read an intriguing review). Have you read that one? I think of him as a super accomplished writer but not always a satisfying storyteller.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve enjoyed most of those I’ve read by him, this one wasn’t for me though. I agree with what you say about being ‘a super accomplished writer but not always a satisfying storyteller’. I have read Amsterdam, but can’t really remember it well – one I would revisit though for sure.

  3. Cathy746books says:

    I very nearly put this on my 20 Books of Summer list. Interestingly, when he came to HomePlace last year he said that this was the title of his back catalogue that he was most fond of!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      How interesting! It certainly has more ideas in it than most of his other novels, but I needed more, and to feel a little sympathy for June and Bernard rather than being irritated by them, and Jeremy. Needless, I’d be fascinated to hear how you find it if you do get around to reading it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was great, wasn’t it? I still have quite a few too. I couldn’t afford hardbacks in those days, so TSP’s softbacks were a great more affordable compromise.

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