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Black Dogs: A Novel Paperback – December 29, 1998

3.9 out of 5 stars 116 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this slim, provocative novel, McEwan ( The Innocent ) examines the conflict between intellect and feeling, as dramatized in one couple's troubled relationship. The narrator is fascinated by his wife's estranged parents, The lives of June and Bernard Tremaine, whose lives epitomize the tug-of-war between political engagement and a private search for ultimate meaning: their ideological and spiritual differences force them apart but never diminish their mutual love. The catalytic event in the Tremaines' lives occurs on their honeymoon in France in 1946. With the characteristic idealism of their generation, both had joined the Communist Party, but June is already becoming disenchanted with its claims. In an encounter with two huge, ferocious dogs--incarnations of the savagely irrational eruptions that recur throughout history--she has an insight that illumines for her the possibility of redemption. Liberally foreshadowed, --the bloodthirsty beasts are used as an overarching metaphor for the presence of evil in the world-- the actual episode with the dogs is not depicted until the book's final section, where its impact requires the reader to take a leap of faith similar to June's. For some this pivotal scene may not be fully convincing. Indeed, McEwan is rather too didactic in the exposition of his theme, so one may expect too much from the novel's dramatic main event. Yet the work is impressive; McEwan's meticulous prose, his shaping of his material to create suspense, and his adept use of specific settings--Poland's Majdanek concentration camp, Berlin during the dismantling of the Wall, a primitive area of the French countryside--produce a haunting fable about the fragility of civilization, always threatened by the cruelty latent in humankind.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Having lost his parents in an auto accident when he was eight years old, the narrator of McEwan's splendid new novel is fascinated with other people's parents--particularly his remarkable in-laws, indissolubly linked yet estranged and combative almost since their wedding. A man of reason who was once a Communist, Bernard Tremaine cannot understand why his wife, June, rejected political activism for spiritual quest after "an encounter with evil" in the form of two fierce black dogs. McEwan does not so much tell their story as the story of the son-in-law's efforts to understand them better by writing about them. Though Bernard and June represent diametrically opposed ways of looking at the world--two views beautifully and succinctly captured by McEwan--they are not mere vessels of thought but lively, distinctive characters in their own right. As the narrator returns to the French countryside where June fatefully encountered the dogs, the deceptively simple buildup makes her brush with violence all the more shocking. A novel of ideas with the hard edge of a thriller; highly recommended.
-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (December 29, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385494327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385494328
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #211,439 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I loved this story: it stayed with me for days. The writing is enviably beautiful and rich; the theme is intelligent and challenging. Ostensibly, the debate between mysticism versus rationalism sunders Bernard and June. But each of the combatants possesses the worst traits of the other's ideology. Bernard has a slavish faith in the scientific method, while June feels the necessity to shore up her spirituality with flawless rhetoric and argumentation. They must both explain: and the irony is that their marriage ends, even though they are both talking about the same thing: the truth as they perceive it.
While this certainly isn't a new theme (postmodernism and its subsequent backlash has provided us with a lot of reading lately), McEwan handles it creatively and respectfully. He gives us no answers and never insults our intelligence.
Finally, McEwan brings up the question of evil and how we respond to it. In one situation, our narrator would turn away from it given his choice(when Bernard faces the mob, and the narrator doesn't); in another situation, the narrator confronts evil in another, bigger man and in himself.
It is a short, worthwhile, well-crafted read.
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Set in post second world war Europe (mostly France) and extending to the late eighties, Ian McEwan's Black Dogs is the memoir of protagonist Jeremy, who diligently sets about to chronicle the lives of his in-laws, Bernard and June Tremaine. Jeremy was an orphan with a proclivity for insinuating himself into the families of his friends and, lately, his wife.

As we see in McEwan's Atonement, Black Dogs is also about the writing of a novel. Jeremy attempts to set the record straight about his in-laws, intellectuals on opposing surfaces of the same coin. June is a romantic, a mystic, who sees life as a journey through the inner space of reflective meditation and personal awareness. Her husband is an organizer, a thinker who feels the world can be set right only through the right application of right ideas. Since both June and Bernard would rather be right than happy, and since neither could see the conceit and limitations of their own viewpoints, they wasted a lifetime of love in separate but parallel existences.

The black dogs, the central allegorical feature of the novel, are either a fact, a historical event that evolved out of the depravity of humankind (dogs tend to be rather like their handlers), or they are more symbolic features, a mythological construction representing evil, manifest as personal depression and cultural depravity. Could they be both?

Could Bernard, the arcane intellectual who would rather spend hours talking about the plight of the poor than a half our in their company, could he be a courageous, understanding man after all? Where does love go, after it has filtered through a thousand grand but irrelevant arguments? How do we stumble upon who we are and how we got here?

McEwan is a delight to read.
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Format: Paperback
The story of a young couple whose estrangement begins almost the day they're married, as told by the fascinated son-in-law, an orphan himself. An amazing novel, as universal as the fall of Communism and the memory of genocide and as introspective as one young woman's discovery of the mystical, of God, inside herself when she encounters some vicious dogs. As cosmic as the problem of pure evil and as ordinary as a bickering couple. Beautifully written, masterfully paced, and told with just the right amount of tension mixed with a soothing degree of acceptance. Each character is fully realized, and the dialogue perfect in its realism as well as its restraint. McEwan lets the characters reveal themselves, though their actions as well as actual descriptions of each other, and the subtleties, and potential misunderstandings, are complex and brilliant.
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Format: Paperback
Black Dogs contains massive amounts for such a slim volume. It is a stylish, elegant short novel that mixes in such a wealth of European culture, war, timescale, philosophy, ideology and character change that I couldn't quite believe the novel only amounts to some 160 pages.

Black Dogs is, unashamedly, a European novel of ideas. As Julian Barnes said, some people don't like finding ideas in novels, it is like discovering a toothpick in a sandwich (Nabokov was perhaps the most forthright proponent of this view). I happen to rather like ideas. Used wisely, they can infuse fiction with new angles, different approaches to the essential fictional subjects - stories, and the human condition that allows them to happen.

Despite the ambition though, I don't think the novel is one of McEwan's greatest. There is so much packed in that the main characters - Bernard and June, the couple on which the book is centred, don't have sufficient room to breathe. They come across more as paragons of particular ideas and personality types McEwan is interested in exploring - intellectual vs practical thinker, reason vs spirituality, subjective vs objective truth, scorpions v dragonflies (used in two separate, vivid scenes to show the difficulty of pinning down truth, and the cruelty humans are capable of inflicting).

Sometimes, in those sublime Proustian sentences McEwan is capable of crafting, the prose soars, such as the description of the fall of the Berlin wall: 'East Berliners in nylon anoraks and bleached-out jeans jackets, pushing buggies of holding their children's hands, were filing past Checkpoint Charlie, unchecked..Two sisters clung to each other and wouldn't be parted for an interview.' But too often the story is clogged by a little too much neat, earnest philosophizing, and not enough fictional passion.
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