Archive for June, 2015

IAN McEWAN – BLACK DOGS and THE CHILDREN ACT

Bookgroupers all really loved both books. we now understand why Ian McEwan is so famous and such a darling of the literati.

Although both are fabulous there are some differences. For example, the point of view of the narrator is very different: Black Dogs is written in the first person and The Children Act written by an  omniscient narrator. However, this basic difference is masked by McEwan’s skill. In both books he is able to constantly switch between the point of view of the narrator and the point of view of whichever character he is speaking of at the time without losing the reader. He is able to mix together, and switch between, detailed accounts of the state of mind of each character as they experience the events depicted, and astute observations about architecture, politics, science, history and religion, without ever making you wonder ‘who is speaking now’, is this him or the character?

 

black dogsBlack Dogs is deceptively named. It is not a novel about depression as you might be tempted to think from the title. Rather this review gives the key quote from the book that shows these metaphorical black dogs are much older than Winston Churchill’s. This wikipedia quote gives the right reference

A black dog is the name given to a being found primarily in the folklores of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a Hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes.[1] It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk),[2] and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.[1][3][4]

The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern. It is impossible to ascertain whether the creature originated in the Celtic or Germanic elements in British culture. Throughout European mythology, dogs have been associated with death. Examples of this are the Cŵn Annwn,[5] Garmr[6] and Cerberus,[7] all of whom were in some way guardians of the underworld. This association seems to be due to the scavenging habits of dogs.[8] It is possible that the black dog is a survival of these beliefs. Black dogs are almost universally regarded as malevolent, and a few (such as the Barghest) are said to be directly harmful. Some, however, like the Gurt Dog in Somerset and the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills in Connecticut, are said to behave benevolently.

At one level its a plainly told depiction of the history of the relationship of a middle aged man’s elderly in-laws. Not promising material you might think, especially as Bernard and June are not particularly extraordinary individuals, and their breakup was not particularly tempestuous or dramatic. Yet the novel is compelling at the level of the characters’ inner lives, and at the level of very big grand ideas.

He manages to extract from the process of minutely detailing the specifics of their personal stories, and the everyday feelings of these two fairly ordinary people, an excuse to beautifully articulate the real human truth, and complexity, of many of the biggest issues there are.

Via Bernard he describes war in the freshest and most truthful way i have ever read: in less than half a page. He does this in context, so it does not come across as an erudite aside in which the author has inserted himself into the story just to have a rant about some issue. it appears to come from the inner life of the Jeremy, the narrator, as he reflects on the experience of Bernard meeting the locals on his honeymoon walking tour through post war rural France, and is all the more powerful for that

 war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise.

The truth about organised religion he dispenses with in a few lines from June.

I suppose all the great world religions began with individuals making inspired contact with a spiritual reality and then trying to keep that knowledge alive. Most of it gets lost in rules and  and practices and addiction to power. That’s how religions are.

The complexity of our attitudes as humans to a logical rational way of making decisions and behaving versus a more emotional or intuitive approach, seems like a fairly arcane issue for a novel. Perhaps more suited to a philosophy text. But McEwan proves otherwise. This is the issue at the heart of the book. He does not try to encapsulate it briefly anywhere, rather he draws it out across the whole book. He contrasts the attitudes of his two protagonists, and also inserts his narrators thoughts and feelings via both the questions the narrator asks each of them, and the way he describes his own actions. Its beautifully done. I found it very revealing. It made me think and articulate my own approach to making decisions and thinking.

in contrast to rationalism v mysticism, sex is not a surprising thing to find in a novel. However, McEwan even finds  way to make this new, to give us fresh eyes to see through. He does this through June, speaking as an elderly woman he has her describe the attitude of herself and her girlfriends to sex before she met Bernard back in the 1930s.

We used to huddle up and talk about it a great deal. If you were going to be married sex was the price you must pay. After the wedding. It was a tough bargain, but reasonable enough. You couldn’t have something for nothing.

‘And then, everything changed. Within days of meeting Bernard my feelings were . . . well, I thought I was going to explode. I wanted him, Jeremy. It was like a pain. I didn’t want a wedding or a kitchen, I wanted this man. I had lurid fantasies about him. I couldn’t talk to my girlfriends honestly. They would have been shocked.

The final big issue he manages to deal with is capitalism v communism. As long term leftie I have always found it hard to understand why so many of the older generation of left leaning political activists continued to support communism well into the 50s and 60s. Long after the deaths and killings had become well known. This book, for me, explained for the first time, through the vehicle of Bernard and June, why so many members of their generation, the ‘great generation’ born in the 20s or 30s, remained attracted to communism for so long.

the routing of fascism, class struggle, and the great engine of history whose direction was now known to science and which had granted to the Party its inalienable right to govern, all merged to one spectacular view, a beckoning avenue unrolling from the starting point of their love, out across the vast prospect of causse and mountains which reddened as they spoke,

children actThe Children Act is aptly named being about a high court judge dealing with family law issues as outlined by The Guardian. The story about betrayal and duty, both in love and at work. It is largely told through the eyes of Fiona: the judge of the family court specialising in child protection. She begins as the duty bound and self righteous betrayed, and slowly transforms into the confessional and repentant betrayer.

It’s beautifully written and wonderfully observed, full of complex realistic characters in the middle of personal, legal and moral questions with no easy answers.

Fiona’s husband, understandably, wants ‘ecstasy. Almost blacking out with the thrill of it. remember that? I want one last go. Even if you don’t. Or perhaps you do?’ Whereas Fiona ‘could think only of disruption, assignations, disappointment, ill timed phone calls. The sticky business of learning to be with someone new  in bed, the newly devised endearments, all the fakery.

Fiona’s marriage is falling apart and reforming as her life at court gets consumed by yet another insolvable legal question. A lively and bright, young Jehovah s witness is dying of cancer and only a blood transfusion will save him. He is choosing to remain loyal to his faith rather than to remain alive. But he is under 18 so  Fiona can allow the hospital to transfuse him against his, and his family’s wishes, if she deems it to be in the interests of his welfare.

The interactions between them are gentle and personal in tone rather than polemic or political but in this gentle way they do hold up for scrutiny a romantic faith and family focussed world view, alongside a secular utilitarian one.

In the process McEwan also holds up scrutiny to his own readership, people like me and the bookgroupers. He could be pointing the finger at us when Fiona describes the spectrum of views people held on her most recent major case.

at one end people of the secular utilitarian persuasion, impatient of legal detail, blessed by an easy moral equation: one child saved better than two dead.

The narrator informs us very early in the book that it was this case that had caused the turmoil in her marriage:. It concerned conjoined twins, destined to die without medical intervention. She had to decide whether to authorise doctors to separate them, knowing one would die in the hope that the other would live. The trauma of the decision to kill that child, and the ensuing hate mail and media frenzy, had caused her to withdraw emotionally, but she never explained this to her husband, and never does at any stage.

The book ends however, with her talking to him in intimate detail about the Jehovah’s Witness boy. This, to me, makes the book a beautifully crafted redemption story, where or hero, heroine, in this case has learnt a lesson and everyone is better off for it.

Another great line I liked appears before the concluding reconciliation, while Fiona is contemplating life as a deserted wife, 60ish, a judge, living a the law courts. How does one behave, where will she go and who with?

To be the object of general pity was also a form of social death. The nineteenth century was closer than most women thought.

By the end, despite all these complex moral ambiguities, McEwan had not radically changed my world view, probably because it already largely aligns with his. He did though leave me feeling like a softer, less dogmatic human. In any moment the betrayer, the betrayed, and the call of duty, can seem very clear to us, but they rarely are.  There are many types of betrayal and many duties. One betrayal may cause another, and fulfilling one duty may mean failing another.

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June 30, 2015 at 12:50 pm 4 comments


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