Book review / Spilt personalities

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99

Ian McEwan is always described as writing about gore and nastiness, perverse philosophies, machismo metaphysics - and very fed up he must get with this, too. Just because he once wrote a story about things that go bump in bell-jars doesn't mean he should be typecast for ever as baddish and laddish. In fact, his novels are sheep in wolves' clothing.

Under their dark, bristling, thrillerish surfaces lurk explorations of the way we love now: men and women mostly, but parents and children too. His world appears a naturalistic one, but is also metaphorical, as in a romance. He illuminates inner states as well as outer ones, though his landscapes are always realistic and noir-ish enough to satisfy the butchest of readers.

A constant image recurring in his work is the man-woman couple so tightly tangled together and at the same time so confused about sexual difference that an act of violence by a third party is required to allow the protagonists to separate. In The Comfort of Strangers, this was achieved through grisly sadistic ritual and in Black Dogs through the discovery of a particularly beastly Nazi torture. The problems of these couples are exacerbated by their belief in gender as an essential characteristic. The narrator of The Comfort of Strangers reflects sadly on men's ancient desire to hurt and women's to be hurt. Black Dogs divides the sexes into rational men and mystical women. No wonder huge explosions of anger, projected outside on the villains of the piece, suddenly blow everything up in the air.

In Enduring Love, which re-explores these classic themes, what goes up in the air is a balloon. The dramatic opening chapter, which introduces all the elements of the plot, works like a movie. It cuts sharply from scene to scene, with abrupt changes of focus and perspective, letting us see the retakes in slow motion. Joe Rose and his wife Clarissa Mellon are celebrating their reunion after a six-week separation occasioned by Clarissa's research on Keats. Picnicking in the Chilterns, they witness a ballooning accident which results in a man's death.

Four men have raced to the rescue, Joe among them, without success. The resulting tragedy is exacerbated for Joe by the fact that another of the would-be rescuers, Jed Parry, turns out to be a potentially dangerous stalker whose infatuation with Joe threatens his relationship with Clarissa, their love for each other, and their lives as well.

The novel operates on one level as a thriller of hunt and be hunted. As Joe fights Clarissa's criticisms of the way he's coping with this disturbing intruder, and with the suspicions of the police that he is disturbed himself, it also makes forays into psychological suspense. Enduring Love explores the either/or thinking that Charlotte Bronte would have recognised. It pits science against madness, man against woman, reason against intuition, rationality against religion, passion against sanity, love against hate. Joe thrashes around in the midst of all these. He is a successful science journalist who has given up a career in research for the rewards of popular books. He feels that he ought to be able to understand Jed Parry, sort him out and see him off - but he can't. Not for quite a while.

One of the problems is that Jed's homoerotic obsession with Joe is sublimated into the language of religious devotion. He believes he has been chosen by God to draw Joe to the everlasting bliss of the Father's arms. Joe can't see it this way. Having done his homework, he concludes that Jed is suffering from what psychologists have labelled de Clerambault's syndrome. So they can't communicate with each other, because they talk different languages!

Jed represses his homosexual urges and Joe denies that he has any. Jed's love for God and for Joe is presented as the stuff of purest craziness: belief in something that isn't there. Joe has to face the fact that he doesn't, for all his scientific approach to life, understand loving a woman either. It's a skill he's taken for granted. He can't talk to Clarissa about what's happening, partly because she's too busy and tired, partly because she begins to suspect him of being fascinated by Jed. Their relationship, at first apparently so trusting, intimate and strong, shatters under the impact of their inability to support each other.

The novel reaches a satisfyingly violent denouement after a lovely comic set piece on how to buy a gun from braindead hippies wrecked on too much dope, bad karma and burnt toast. The princess is rescued from the dragon, even if she goes on criticising the prince for insisting on doing it his way.

I decided that everything really was Clarissa's fault. If authors are still allowed intentions, I think McEwan meant us to be sympathetic to her. But to me she came across as the kind of radical feminist who believes that womanliness will save the world, that women are morally superior to men, that men can't understand feelings. Boy, are those women trouble. They just don't stand by their men.

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