Black Dogs by Ian McEwan (Cape, £13.99) Candida Brazil FOR those of us who sobbed late into the night over The Child in Time or who were both repelled and gripped by the shocking ordeal of The Innocent, Ian McEwan's new novel comes as something of a half-baked surprise.
Black Dogs is a story about writing a story. Jeremy, the narrator, sits by his dying mother-in-law June Tremaine, gathering information for the account of her life that she herself has asked him to write.
His intimate memoir (this novel), told in the first person, is eventually completed when both June and her husband, Bernard, are dead.
The Tremaines were married in 1946. They were both young and idealistic, enthusiastic about building a new post-war society. They were communists. They were together and in love.
But their togetherness was short-lived. For, after a turning point — the black dogs of the book's title — the two go in opposite directions: June turning to God, or "hocus-pocus" as Bernard calls it; Bernard to socialism and "blathering all day about how things might be different".
Their intolerance of each others' beliefs, made more acute by their continuing love for one another, results in their going separate, unbending ways.
Jeremy finds himself trying to tell a story in the middle of two extremities. From each party the sequence of events differs wildly; moments that are loaded with significance for one mean nothing to the other.
The black dogs incident is not — could not be — witnessed by Bernard, but for June it is a literal and physical reality, something which she and her story-teller take as a point of distillation — for an individual, a whole family and ultimately, for mankind.
But the leap from the personal to the all-encompassing issues that the book raises good and evil, Europe's past and future although we know of it, is never felt to happen.
Now and again, with exquisite everyday observations a child asleep, reconnecting the fridge, even cars parked on a grass verge — the McEwan magic knifes through a rather passive, clinging narrative and leaps into life.
But Black Dogs seems an inbetween sort of book, still on the way somewhere, slight and very, very personal, the black dogs remote in June's private domain.