By Ian McEwan
There is no denying that Ian McEwan has established himself as one of the most gifted and original authors of his generation. In novels such as The Cement Garden and Black Dogs he has staked out a highly individual fictional terrain, mapping fabulous introverted landscapes overcast with violence and haunted by strange varieties of love.
Of course, the downside of getting a reputation is living up to it. And given his history of success, most readers will come to McEwan’s latest novel with high expectations indeed.
Most of these expectations are met by Enduring Love, which offers a familiarly dark vision of human relationships. The story begins with Joe and Clarissa’s picnic in the Chilterns being interrupted by a terrible ballooning accident: “a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.”
Out of this moment of crisis springs Jed Parry’s strange homo-erotic religious obsession with Joe – a vaguely literary species of erotomania that threatens to become a truly fatal attraction.
Except for one chapter in which Joe attempts to tell the story from Clarissa’s point of view (an interesting experiment in narrative that doesn’t work), Enduring Love is a well-paced, absorbing thriller. McEwan’s swift, spare prose is always a treat, making a welcome contrast to the studied preciosity of “fine writing” that receives the lion’s share of critical praise these days. And some real cleverness is on display throughout – beginning with the ambiguity in the title (is “enduring” being used as a verb or an adjective?) and ending with an appendix written up as a clinical case study.
On the downside, readers who have enjoyed the haunting, suggestive quality of McEwan’s fiction in the past may feel some disappointment this time out. I certainly found myself wishing that more had been left unexplained, especially with regard to the sub-plot surrounding the balloon accident. And the debate between the rational, scientific mind and the spiritual and passionate side of human nature, something that worked so well in Black Dogs, is overdone here (Joe is a science writer with a doctorate in quantum electrodynamics; Clarissa is a professor of Romantic poetry searching for the lost love letters of John Keats and Fanny Brawne).
Placed alongside academic types like these, the stranger of the piece only tends to draw attention away from the main narrative focus. But few readers will object. Jed Parry is one of the most memorable fictional psychos since Fowles’s Collector, and it is his obsessive delusions that make the book come alive. Finally, it may be his love that most endures.
Review first published February 7, 1998. The first Canadian edition had the ugliest cover art I have ever seen, which probably didn’t help its sales. Still, this is a better book than Amsterdam, and one of the best “battle of the sexes” books ever written. Male readers invariably side with Joe, while women defend Clarissa. For what it is worth, I seem to remember seeing an interview with McEwan where he said that Joe was the one who was right in the end.