My challenge continues with another race of a read, this time from Ian McEwan, one of my favourite living authors. This is my sixth McEwan novel, following Atonement, Amsterdam, The Innocent, On Chesil Beach and The Cement Garden, and sits somewhere between the horror-tinged narratives of The Innocent and the deeply disturbing The Cement Garden and the probing psychological depth of Atonement. In a tale that tackles love, obsession and trauma, McEwan brings his brilliant character insight hand in hand with a compelling plot that remains taut as a bow string with tension.
The novel opens with a tragic hot air balloon accident, an incident that is striking in its uncommonness; this is no ordinary, everyday catastrophe, and the singularity of the event, painted in long and vivid strokes by McEwan, makes it a fitting set-piece to serve as a springboard for the rest of the novel. There is from the beginning a tangible sense of the unsettling, prompted by the intrusion of this bizarre disaster into an idyllic countryside picnic. It is rendered all the more arresting by McEwan’s lingering description of events and the abrupt changes of pace; as McEwan writes, ‘the best description of a reality does not need to mimic its velocity’.
Among those tangled up in this accident are narrator Joe, his partner Clarissa and lonely young man Jed Parry. What begins as tragedy soon deepens into something more sinister as the collision of the couple with Parry has consequences that none of them would have anticipated. Parry rapidly develops a stifling obsession with Joe, lingering outside his home, writing him endless love letters and causing a destructive rift between him and Clarissa. While the deluded love Parry professes seems needy rather than violent, there hangs over the narrative the constant threat that his unstable character could suddenly become dangerous.
The ‘enduring love’ of the title has a myriad of meanings: the strong and lasting love between Joe and Clarissa that is gradually eroded by the outside pressure of Parry; the unrelenting passion Parry feels for Joe; the obsessive affection that Joe must endure from his stalker. Obsession likewise goes more than one way, as Joe soon becomes as wrapped up in his stalker as Parry is in him. Through McEwan’s nuanced and perceptive portrayal of his narrator, readers are left with a psychological portrait of a strained man still suffering from the impact of trauma, planting a grain of doubt in his ardent fears that he is being stalked. Joe is just unreliable enough as a narrator to prevent this from being a clear-cut case of pursuer and prey throughout.
Despite the page-turning intensity and tense plotting of this novel, Enduring Love is much more than a thriller. As well as the hovering presence of threat and the psychological question posing, there is at the centre of McEwan’s book an intriguing tension between science and religion, logic and emotion. Joe is a science journalist who regrets his abandonment of research, with this regret fuelling a scientific dissection of every aspect of his life, applying a rigorous logic to his situation with Parry that soon tips over into the hysterical and paranoid, ironically going against his desire for cool examination.
Clarissa, meanwhile, is a Keats scholar enveloped in a love of words and the Romantic philosophy, casting a critical eye over Joe’s dogged rationality. Completing this trio of oppositely tugging viewpoints is Parry, a Christian who believes that it is his mission to bring Joe to God. These central characters provide three vital pivots for the discussion that runs as a constant undercurrent to the action, adding a further dimension that gives the novel dual layers of enjoyment. Parry’s religion, however, is treated with a distinct note of disdain that precludes the pursuit of further interesting reflection; while Parry’s perception of Christianity is clearly skewed by his own delicate mental state, there is the danger of associating religion more widely with characters such as Parry and undermining belief through Joe’s dismissal of faith that is, one feels, a slightly unnecessary reflection of McEwan’s own views.
Alongside such discussion, McEwan keeps readers’ jangling nerves on edge through a retrospectively imposed tension on the part of narrator Joe, lending even the most innocuous of scenes an ominous aura by the repeatedly imparted knowledge that some unspecified horror is about to occur. The beauty of McEwan’s writing is that he can unfold a short incident in painstakingly minute detail over the space of chapter and still hook readers on every single word. His disasters are exquisite in their compelling detail.
With his stunning first chapter, however, McEwan sets up an opening that he cannot match with his conclusion. There is a hint of the anti-climax about the way in which McEwan ties up his various threads, with the knots being a little too neat for my liking. McEwan, who usually eschews cathartic narrative resolutions, writes in one of his final chapters that ‘the narrative compression of storytelling, especially in movies, beguiles us with happy endings into forgetting that sustained stress is corrosive of feeling’, yet goes on to give readers an uncharacteristically resolved conclusion. Perhaps he simply began with an intensity that could not quite be sustained.
Yet despite such criticisms, Enduring Love remains a beautiful and engrossing read that confirms once again in my mind – if I needed any further confirmation – McEwan’s status as one of the great writers of his generation.