by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 262 pp., $23.95
After six previous novels and two books of short stories, Ian McEwan’s reputation as a writer of small, impeccably written fictions is secure. His gift for the cold and scary is well established, too: among the critical praise that festoons his book jackets, the word “macabre” crops up more than once. But his books are more than tales of suspense and shock; they raise issues of guilt and love and fear, essentially of what happens when the civilized and ordered splinters against chaos. There can be something of Greek myth in his narratives—man casually overthrown by the indifferent Fates. At the same time he is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled. It is a pity his surname is resistant to adjective (as in “Kafkan”): it would have a quite recognizable meaning by now.
Enduring Love is as satisfying in the menace and tension departments as any of the previous books, and less unforgiving than some—his best, perhaps, since The Child in Time. The plot is simplicity itself: a loving and well-matched couple, Joe and Clarissa, are split apart by a deranged stalker who believes that instant mutual love has struck himself and Joe. One kind of enduring love meets another kind (to Jed, the stalker, just as real), and the result is disaster. So what is love, anyway: what real, what illusory, what benign, what destructive?
The opening of the story is a Verdi overture: sweet tunes are played, ominous notes struck, and the curtain rises on a baritone voice. Clarissa and Joe are having a celebratory picnic after a six-week separation during which Clarissa has been researching letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne (obsessive love!). The baritone voice comes from the pilot of a helium balloon heading for a smash in the field below.
McEwan excels in presenting the single moment frozen in time. Clarissa has handed Joe the wine bottle, his palm has just touched the neck, and the frightened shout comes from across the grass.
We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help.
There is a horrible accident; a man dies gruesomely. It is not certain whether it could have been prevented, whether someone let it happen (did Joe?). Everyone who saw the event is affected; together, and with friends, Joe and Clarissa talk it out and try to exorcise it. At the moment of the accident, in a marvelously described state of manic shock, Joe has thrown a wildly cheerful glance at one of the other bystanders. And so it begins.
Jed Parry is youngish, ponytailed, in denims and red-laced trainers. No sooner has the glance found him than he is coming up to Joe, falling to his knees …