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Book club: Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan

04 September 2020

Mark Oakley ponders on the unease in Ian McEwan’s novel Black Dogs

IAN McEWAN is probably my favourite novelist. This often provokes an alarmed reaction in friends. “But he’s so dark and gruesome”, one said to me, “he should be called Ian MacAbre.” It’s true that some of Ian McEwan’s work, especially his earlier novels and stories, are a concentrated dissection of our submerged turmoil and privacies, as relentlessly shocking as a child slowly pulling off the wings off a butterfly. It is an art of unease, a scalpel-slicing surgery on the preconceived, the masks that eat into the face, the sly contradictions of a life.

Black Dogs (1992) is McEwan’s fifth novel. In the middle of it we find the narrator, Jeremy, travelling to Berlin with his father-in-law to join the crowds watching the Wall collapse. In the festive air something else is brewing, though. At Checkpoint Charlie they become entangled in an ugly scene in which a young immigrant is set on by neo-Nazi skinheads. Middle-class suited citizens observe the assault with ill-disguised satisfaction.

As the monument to the defeat and division of Nazi Germany topples, a terrible question emerges: what if the event that seemed to mark the victory of reason and democracy turns out to hatch something completely other? In many places, the question is still alive.

This is the anxiety at the heart of the book: the fear that, far from having left the apocalyptic horrors of two world wars behind, we may be en route to reliving them, because the human drives that fuelled them have merely been suppressed, and may never be eradicated. The forces of darkness, symbolised by the ominous creatures of the title, “will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time” (last line of the book).

© Urszula SoltysIan McEwan, the award-winning author of Black Dogs

Black dogs, of course, whether at the foot of Dürer’s Melencholia I, or named by Johnson and Churchill in depression, or let loose by Artemis on mortals and devouring the unburied Greek heroes, have mythic qualities reminding us of the animal in us — the ever-present force that might leap into action at any time.

In Black Dogs, McEwan stages the crisis into which his beliefs have been thrown, and takes stock of what writing fiction entails. The contending viewpoints of all this are embodied in the three main characters: the narrator, Jeremy, and his wife’s parents, Bernard and June Tremaine. Jeremy’s preface to his memoir of the couple spells out their different takes on the world: “Rationalist and mystic, commissar and yogi, joiner and abstainer, scientist and intuitionist, Bernard and June are the extremities, the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest.”

For Bernard, the rational scientific humanist who left the Communist Party after the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and became a Labour MP, it is human beings who inscribe on reality whatever intelligibility it yields; we make things the way they are, and we can change them for better or worse by changing the way we think and behave as individuals and communities.

For June, a momentous encounter with two gargantuan black dogs while on honeymoon in France, in 1946, has been enough to convince her that a divinity shapes our ends, and that our lives should be devoted to cultivating its presence within us and resisting the incursions of its opposite. “I met evil and discovered God,” she says.

June’s vision strikes a chord with her son-in-law. With the Checkpoint Charlie incident still fresh in his mind, he finds it hard to shake off her belief in an ineradicable taste for evil lurking in individuals and nations — an appetite that no amount of social theory can account for. Fortunately, June maintains, to pit against this “we have within us an infinite resource, a potential for a higher state of being, a goodness”, and what she terms “the healing power of love”.

But then her biographer’s sympathy weakens, and he starts to side with Bernard’s aversion to “those clarion calls . . . to improve, to yield up the defensible core of selfhood and see it dissolve in the warm milk of universal love and goodness. It is the kind of talk that makes me blush. I wince for those who speak this way.”

Jeremy’s mind shuttles between these two creeds, each striking him by turns as either self-deceiving claptrap or urgent wisdom of global relevance. Listening to the two voices haranguing each other inside his head, he ends up in paralysis: “Each proposition blocked the one before, or was blocked by the one that followed. It was a self-cancelling argument, a multiplication of zeros, and I could not make it stop.”

Like Bernard and June, who have lived apart despite loving one another for most of their married lives, the stances wrangling inside the narrator’s skull are doomed to remain wedded, yet unreconciled.

I find Jeremy haunting, almost a personification of a spirit in our times. He stalks the lives of his surrogate parents, perhaps because of what he calls his “irreducible sense of childish unbelonging”, but makes a troubling discovery about himself: “I discovered”, he says, “I had no attachments, I believed in nothing. It was not that I was a doubter, or that I had armed myself with the useful scepticism of a rational curiosity, or that I saw all arguments from all sides; there was simply no good cause, no enduring principle, no fundamental idea which I could identify, no transcendent entity whose existence I could truthfully, passionately or quietly assert.” His words are doomed to be mere spectators, never committed or participating in the values and beliefs he discusses.

At the end of the day, McEwan can assure us only that all we have is the fleeting respite of the stories that we tell ourselves, with conflicting “facts”, feeding our hunger for sense. Is all this atheistic? Well, McEwan simply takes us out of the shallows and explores the confusions of a psalm-like territory of emotion and dislocation, God in the question, not the answer. This work is a challenge to why and what we believe, and it stops us buying into the travesty of any bumper-sticker theology that fakes authenticity.

The Revd Mark Oakley is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-09-927708-8.


  1. Is the rationalist/mystic binary that underpins the novel a valid one, in your view? Why, or why not?

  2. June is described as coming to God through an encounter with evil. Must the two coexist?
    “I turned a fresh page in my notebook.”

  3. Is there something predatory, or even parasitic, about the biographer?

  4. Jeremy describes the process of ageing as hanging on “at every stage . . . until you were beaten”. Is he right? What other ways are there to view the ageing process?

  5. What different forms does violence take in the novel?

  6. “It sounded crude, quite obscene, on her lips.” What purpose do you think the descriptions of sex hold in the novel?

  7. Much of the described relationship between June and Bernard is negative and painful. Are there any positive aspects of their relationship?

  8. “I wince for those who speak this way.” Why is religious belief depicted as embarrassing? Is it embarrassing?

  9. “A perfect case of bending the facts to the idea.” How often do you interrogate your own beliefs? What is important to you when forming them?

  10. “Intuition” is often stereotyped as a feminine trait, “rationalism” as a masculine one. Why do you think that is? Is it false? 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 October, we will print extra information about our next book, Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. It is published by Penguin at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-241-95044-9.



Salinger’s short story Franny (1955) and related novella Zooey (1957) were published as a single work in 1961. The stories feature the two youngest members of the fictional Glass family. In Franny, the story follows the title character, a 20-year-old undergraduate, on a trip to visit her boyfriend at his college. Over lunch, she becomes distressed while discussing the egotism, superficialities, and pretensions of her contemporaries. Zooey, set the following week, continues the story of Franny’s personal and spiritual distress back home in the Glass family flat, where her older brother Zooey engages her in an intense and striking discussion of theology.



Born in 1919 in New York, the novelist and short-story writer J. D. Salinger was the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. He was conscripted into the United States army in 1942, where he served for four years. During that time, he met Ernest Hemingway, with whom he began to correspond. Salinger’s most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), was published a few years after his return to the US, but brought him more attention than he desired. Salinger gradually became more reclusive, and is often described as having struggled with spiritual beliefs and personal relationships. Salinger died in 2010.



November: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

December: Told by an Idiot by Rose Macaulay

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