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Ian McEwan: Enduring Love

Joe Rose is a science writer. He lives with Clarissa, a University English teacher, specializing in the Romantic poets. At the start of the novel, they are having a picnic in a field when a balloon, clearly in trouble, drifts into sight. Joe, along with four other men who happen to be nearby, rush to the rescue. They steady the balloon by holding on the rope but the ten year old boy in the balloon is scared stiff and will not get out, while his grandfather, who had been piloting the balloon, tries to climb over the other men back into the balloon. Suddenly, a gust of wind pulls the balloon into the air. The men quickly let go off the ropes and fall to the earth. One man, however, holds on and is carried up into the air. Eventually, of course, he lets go and is killed. Joe is the first to the body. And that is when his troubles begin.

The main problem is Jed, the second man on the scene, who urges Joe to pray with him. Subsequently, he stalks Joe, proclaiming both his love for Joe and urging Joe to accept God. Joe declines both offers but Jed will not go away. Worse, Clarissa thinks he is exaggerating and so do the police. The plot is complicated by the fact that the dead man’s widow, whom Joe visits, thinks her husband was with another woman at the time and wants Joe to investigate.

But forget the plot. What makes this book such an excellent one is that here we clearly have a writer in full command of his medium. This might seem commonplace but is, in fact, very rare. Even in great books, you can all too often see the joins, the writer’s hesitation, the need to tie up everything in a nice, neat bow. McEwan has now evolved to the stage where his writing is seemingly effortless, where you do not feel that he is sitting in front of his computer struggling over every word as you do with all too many writers. The structure of his story is conventional – a key event which ultimately leads to a climax, interspersed with flashbacks so you know how the main characters got where they are and how they might deal with the problem thrown at them by the author. A more conventional writer would have made the breaks between now and then very explicit but McEwan skillfully integrates the past and the present so that neither intrudes upon the other. In fact, when you read this book, you might not notice it. That’s his skill.

The novel of ideas is dying out in England. English writers have too often focused on the narrow, the daily grind. Nothing wrong with this. They have often done it very well. But it does not make for great literature. McEwan is one of the few for whom ideas are still important and this is very evident in this book. It is impossible to glean all the ideas from one reading – and this is very much a book that deserves re-reading – but one important idea that clearly emerges from this work is the idea that we humans ceaselessly try to interpret the world in our own manner and we are frequently wrong. Joe interprets it as a rational man of science but even he has to admit that science itself changes the paradigm all the time – chaos was once fashionable, now it is consciousness and next year it will be something else. Jed, of course, has his religious viewpoint. But McEwan does not just show us interpretations of the world. Clarissa and the police have their interpretation of Jed’s behaviour, which differs from Joe’s and, indeed, makes us doubt Joe’s narration of events. Mrs. Logan, the widow of the man who died when falling from the balloon, has her interpretation of her husband’s behaviour which, in turn, turns out to be not what it seems. Throughout the book, we are given this vivid picture of our failure to correctly see the world or rather, correctly, interpret what we see or think we see.

There is no doubt in my mind that this one of the finest novels to come out of late twentieth century England. Read it.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Jonathan Cape