Rosellen Brown’s recent novel, Before and After, and Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs both explore the effects of an act of unfathomable violence on a family. Though Before and After centers on a murder, it is, more than a reconstruction of events, a psychological analysis of the impact of those events on the family. Black Dogs is harder to place, an uneasy mixture of mystery, contemporary history, and novel of ideas.
Before and After is an examination of the disintegration of a family following a murder, and of the moral consequences of that murder. The Reisers are the perfect nuclear unit, two parents, a teen-age son, a younger daughter. A liberal couple with, one is certain, some political activism in its past, Ben and Carolyn—she is a pediatrician, he a sculptor and a Jew—have left New York to raise their children in the idyllic country town of Hyland, New Hampshire, population 5,000. But living the simple life proves highly complex. To the locals, the family, while accepted on the surface, remain outsiders, too privileged, too well-educated. Ben himself notices that when he talks to his neighbors, even those he thinks of as friends, he aims for the casual and hearty, dropping a few words here and there, “as if complete sentences were pretentious.” But such small accommodations seem to them worth what they see as the good life.
Their complacency comes to an end the moment Carolyn sees the body of a young girl, her head smashed in, lying on a hospital operating table, and clearly the victim of an assault. Accidents happen in Hyland, but rarely murder, where, Carolyn thinks, “gossip…did the damage between antagonists that guns did in cities.” The dead girl, Martha Taverner, is from the town, a high-school classmate of Jacob’s, Carolyn and Ben’s seventeen-year-old son, and she was found dead on the side of a road.
It later becomes clear that Jacob and Martha were sleeping together, and, when Jacob himself disappears, his link to the crime is inescapable. The town’s police chief, Fran Conklin, asks to search the house and Jacob’s car. Carolyn initially acquiesces, partly because she is unable to believe Jacob is the killer, partly out of an earnest moral belief in the value of candor, reason, and authority. But Ben refuses and, before the police can return with a warrant, he frantically searches Jacob’s car. Finding nothing suspicious in the front or back seat, he is about to hand it over to the police, when he thinks to look in the trunk:
The trunk…rose with the slow deliberation of a drawbridge, and then I thought I’d fall over for lack of breath. Because I knew I was looking at blood….I could see the shape of the splotches and worse, the little splatters that had flown off something. The something, I suspected, was the jack.
Ben painstakingly dismantles the bloody jack, hides the evidence in his studio, and cleans out the trunk.
The heart of the novel concerns the different responses of the family to the growing certainty of Jacob’s guilt—the parents’ delusions and conflicting loyalties to their son and to the truth, the confusion and moral clarity of their daughter, Judith. Ben is fiercely protective of Jacob, Carolyn obsessed with getting to the truth, to the point of cooperating with the police. The opposition between the parents becomes corrosive. When a postcard arrives from Jacob, Ben is reassured,
“He’s alive,” I said, with a huge exhalation of relief.
“He’s alive and he’s crazy,” Carolyn bitterly replies.
Jacob is found by the police, charged with murder, and released into his parents’ custody. He has become practically catatonic, refusing to speak let alone describe to them what had happened. But at last, in grief and misery, he confesses to his parents to having struck Martha in anger and unintentionally killed her. Ben at once constructs an elaborate false alibi for his son. “All I’m suggesting is that we save your life first and later on we can worry about your soul. Is that too much of an intrusion on your—what is it, your space?” But Carolyn is also concerned about the girl whose skull Jacob had repeatedly bashed in, and with the Reisers’ responsibility to her family. She is determined that the truth come out.
Like her, Judith is appalled by her father’s single-mindedness, and deception. Indeed, although he is determined to face anything, even jail, to save Jacob, Ben is unaware of the need to protect his daughter. When she is present during crucial, clearly disturbing conversations, he self-righteously laments:
I wished we were all too young, at least by a day, so that we could be back on the other side of Then. But she is twelve. She’s one of us.
Brown suggests, too, that in the self-sacrifice and commitment to moral duty of both parents, there is also something self-serving, although in very different ways. When, trusting the system, Carolyn insists on testifying against her son, Jacob’s lawyer loses his patience: “Oh, tell me about it. You and your wildcatter husband. You and your saintly goddamn absolutes. I want to tell you, you’re more selfish than you can begin to realize, both of you.”
Rosellen Brown’s novel was inspired by a real murder trial in which a seventeen-year-old boy was tried for killing a young woman. In that case both parents refused to testify against their son and were briefly jailed for contempt. By changing the facts, Before and After takes a far more complex, paradoxical, perhaps too schematic, view of family life: Ben commits a crime out of too much love, and Carolyn betrays her son out of guilt and moral rectitude. The book turns on unanswerable questions of parental knowledge, guilt, and responsibility, so intensely that one begins to feel a distinctly voyeuristic chill.
Brown underscores the shifting and uncertain nature of these relationships by using three narrators, father, mother, and daughter, with Ben narrating in the first person, Carolyn and Judith in the third. For most of the novel Jacob himself only dimly emerges, first through bizarre postcards he sends his family while he is in hiding. The messages are by turns joky and grim (“Someone said I could get tortillas made of blue corn out here!” and, “Sleeping is hard,” “I know you don’t pray, but pray now”). After watching his room being searched, Ben helplessly notes the distance between them: “We were sour with the smell of the cigarettes Jacob hadn’t smoked when we could see him.”
While Carolyn is less emotional, obsessed with doing right, it is the puzzled Judith who often seems the moral center of the novel and the most cleareyed of the three. Judith’s chapters are the best parts of the book; she seems the only one who knows that Jacob is both “harsh and delicate.” Brown is good on the complicity and protectiveness of siblings, and on the power an older child can have over a younger. Judith is fascinated by Jacob’s control in front of his parents and his private violence:
After a few minutes she went to Jacob’s room…but she stopped short. He was smashing at his closet door with his bare hand, brutally, grunting as if each blow he landed were injuring someone. His Led Zeppelin poster was deeply gouged, its margin in shreds. Blood from his knuckles blossomed onto its white ground.
(It must be said that Brown overdoes the blood here as well as elsewhere in the novel.)
Judith tries to give her mother an idea of Jacob’s violent side. She confides that she had once come across Jacob torturing a dog, and is forced to go into pained detail while at the same time trying to exonerate her brother. But the truth is almost impossible for Carolyn to grasp:
What did she know, what did she not know? Stoning a dog up in the meadow? She had no breath for it. Judith circled her, saying, “Mom, are you all right? I shouldn’t have told you.”
Part of the last section of the book is told by Judith, now fifteen, in the first person, in an account that is both melancholy and sardonic. The trial is over, Jacob has been freed by two hung juries, and the family has moved to Texas. What she says of Jacob applies to the rest of the family:
I’m not sure I can say what I expect. But I treat him a little too politely, like—I don’t know, a visitor, I guess. One of those exchange students you don’t want to offend because you don’t know the customs of their country.
While Brown is convincing on the reactions of her characters to each other, and to their growing awareness of the truth, her account of the aftermath of the crime itself is not entirely plausible. Would the police not have noticed the incriminating tracks Ben made while disposing of the murder evidence? Would two juries be unable to come to a verdict, in view of Carolyn’s own testimony against her son? In the real-life crime the murderer was convicted. In Brown’s novel, Jacob is set free, and the four Reisers leave Hyland, remaining uneasily together, pretending, again, to be ordinary. “Location situation,” Ben wryly quotes a teen-age expression. “You had to be there.” Judith’s own reaction, her vision of the family as “a mess of threats and surrenders and regrets and things they won’t say” seems the truest.
The narrators in Ian McEwan’s earlier books tend to live in rarefied, nightmarish domestic situations rather than in precise locations or times. His explorations of solitary lives and domestic futility, and particularly the ruin of childhood, occasionally can seem conceits, as with a boy who has been literally infantilized for eighteen years. There were also potential moral underpinnings in the horror of his stories, and there were, too, the wit and strangeness of his prose.
But his more recent work is very different, carefully grounded in a particular time, and preoccupied with recent history. Indeed, in Black Dogs two historical periods—the immediate post—World War II period with its illusions about communism, and 1989 during the collapse of European communism—crowd the foreground. The novel’s narrator, Jeremy, and his wife hear the news that the Berlin Wall has come down while they are making love: “We were doing our best to keep its full importance at arm’s length…. But the spell had been broken. Cheering crowds were surging through the early morning gloom of our bedroom.”
Black Dogs purports to be Jeremy’s memoir of his mother-in-law, June Tremaine. In 1946, June and her lover, Bernard, have just been married and quit their wartime jobs in British intelligence. Full of confidence in the future, they have joined the Communist Party. Their illusions of love and politics are dangerously linked. “We’d founded a private utopia, and it was only a matter of time before the nations of the world followed our example,” June wryly tells Jeremy forty years later.
But while she and Bernard, on their honeymoon, are walking in the Languedoc, looking forward to “a new Europe” and their first child, June is set upon and terrorized by two feral dogs: “They moved slowly. They seemed to be working together to some purpose.” She is paralyzed by fear for several minutes, but feels herself suddenly surrounded by an energy, a trust in survival, or God, perhaps, she thinks, and is determined to fight and survive.
The big dog was down, ready for the spring, waiting for one moment’s inattention. The muscles in its haunches quivered. A back paw scrabbled for better purchase. She had seconds left, and her hand was around her third rock…. In a delirium of abandonment, she attacked. She had passed through fear to fury that her happiness, the hopes of the past months, and now the revelation of this extraordinary light were about to be destroyed by a pair of abandoned dogs.
While the dogs stalk June, Bernard, an amateur entomologist, has fallen behind and stopped to examine a group of caterpillars. The separateness of the two experiences will pull them apart. Though he is capable of minute observation when it comes to insects, Bernard fails to take in the bite marks and saliva on June’s knapsack and never quite believes that June was in danger, let alone that she had a vision. Even though the villagers at St. Maurice verify June’s encounter with the dogs, telling the couple that in 1944 the Gestapo had brought them to the village in order to intimidate the inhabitants, and they have been roaming about wild for months.
The attack by the dogs becomes part of family lore, but forty years later Bernard is still denying the experience: “‘Face to face with evil’?” he prods Jeremy, “I’ll tell you what she was up against that day—a good lunch and a spot of malicious village gossip!”
The couple drifts apart. June loses her interest in politics, becoming solitary and mystical, as Bernard becomes “a public man,” a Labour politician, and then TV spokesman for the “certainties” of science and left-wing politics. Indeed, the novel can at times read like a symposium between the mystical June and the pragmatic Bernard, with Jeremy as their skeptical acolyte: “Statements and counter-statements chased their tales…. It was a drone that would not be banished.” Two years after June dies, Jeremy finds himself becoming increasingly irritated with Bernard’s complacency and aware of its destructiveness:
What struck me then was not simply the injustice of Bernard’s remarks, but a wild impatience at the difficulty of communication, and an image of parallel mirrors in place of lovers on a bed, throwing back in infinite regression likenesses paling into untruth.
The book shifts in time back and forth between the late Eighties and 1946, and in place between Wiltshire, Berlin, and the south of France. Although in the very opening of the narrative, when Jeremy goes to visit June, now dying in a nursing home, he hears the familiar story of the black dogs, the event itself is not described until the last section. This scene is paralleled, and in a way confirmed, by an event that takes place forty years later, in Berlin, where Jeremy has taken Bernard just after the Wall has come down. A group of young neo-Nazis sets upon Bernard, but he is rescued when
out of the crowd there sprang a figure who whirled about us, lashing the boys with staccato sentences of piercing rebuke. It was a furious young woman. Her power was of the street…. The force of her disgust was sexual.
Here McEwan invokes June’s spirit all too neatly, but the parallel manages to make the menace of the scene seem less gratuitous.
Exploring politics and history in Europe through very isolated and violent moments is, of course, a risk, and the connections between Bernard’s encounter with the neo-Nazi youths in 1989 and June’s moment of terror in 1946 can seem schematic, the events themselves forced. But each scene is brilliantly lit, and has a characteristically strange fascination as Ian McEwan juxtaposes “huge and tiny currents” to show the ways in which individuals react to history. Jeremy first hears of the black dogs in Poland in 1981, when he and June’s daughter Jenny Tremaine are visiting a concentration camp. It is here, too, that their love affair begins, and they spend the next three days in bed together in the shadow of the Majdenek camp. This scene comes dangerously close to being obtrusive, grotesque, but McEwan is so deft a writer that again the violence does not, finally, seem gratuitous.
While June and Bernard are the central characters, the novel subtly revolves around the bleak figure of Jeremy, an outsider, a man of great loneliness and guilt. “Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people’s parents,” Black Dogs arrestingly begins. Jeremy has grown up living with his older sister and her husband, and, later, their daughter, Sally.
Harper had a gift for violence…. But there were also times when I went into the kitchen and found Jean at the table reading a magazine and smoking while Harper stood at the kitchen sink, naked but for his purple jock strap, with half a dozen bright red weals across his buttocks, humbly washing the dishes.
Unable to distinguish between guilt and love or to overcome his own sense of abandonment, Jeremy seeks out other families. He eventually discovers that “the simplest way of restoring a lost parent was to become one yourself.” He has married happily and has four children—who are virtually absent from the novel. Even his wife, Jenny, though described in physical detail (down to an amputated sixth finger), is only dimly present—Sally’s loneliness and misery are far more realized. Jeremy is haunted by leaving his niece behind and by his inability to help her when she repeats her parents’ history. And in spite of his assertions about love’s power, Jeremy admits, “It is the black dogs I return to most often. They trouble me when I consider what happiness I owe them.”
In the middle of the novel Jeremy witnesses a French couple gratuitously beating their son. In a rage, he challenges the father, wanting, he thinks, to ennoble himself and somehow atone for his having abandoned Sally. Instead he finds himself dangerously exhilarated: “I think I might have kicked and stomped him to death if I had not heard a voice…. Immediately I knew that the elation driving me had nothing to do with revenge and justice.” This revelation does not require the fall of the Berlin Wall for its force. Ambitious as Black Dogs is in its time and setting, it comes to life in such moments of intense domestic violence.
January 14, 1993