The narrator, Jeremy, orphaned at age 8, is attempting to write a memoir of his wife's parents, June and Bernard Tremaine. The pair married in England in 1946, idealistic young members of the British Communist Party, but on their honeymoon in France something happens to June that estranges her from her husband and his values forever. After the birth of their daughter, Jeremy's wife, the two live separately. June dies in a nursing home in 1987, after telling Jeremy a great deal about her life and marriage.

In 1989 Jeremy and Bernard travel to Germany together to share in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Bernard has taken a lot longer than his wife did to give up on communism. In Berlin, Jeremy hears his father-in-law's very different version of the couple's biography. Jeremy then travels to France to try and unearth the truth about their honeymoon, finding unreliable storytellers, poor memory, and, at the center, June's encounter in the French countryside with a pair of black dogs, owned and trained and then abandoned by the Gestapo. The story, as Jeremy reconstitutes it, is a discovery of evil that, regardless of literal factuality, bears a terrible truth about the human capacity to do harm, both personal and political.


McEwan frames his fiction like an actual memoir, beginning with a preface, using exact dates, and anchoring events in known history. The novel is however playing with being non-fiction in order to highlight the subjectivity and situatedness of all histories, both national and individual. Bernard and June's stories are in many ways incommensurable, not least because at the center of each is a firm and opposite idea about the nature of fact and truth, science and narrative, the spiritual and the material.

As each refutes and reconstructs the other's version, our assumptions, like Jeremy's, are undermined, and so is the moral weight we cannot help but attach to each version. Two startlingly vivid scenes, one involving a dragonfly and the other a scorpion, illuminate the difficulty of objective perception and demonstrate how the beauty and the malignity of the world, particularly where humans are involved, are often inseparable.

This novel would be a powerful tool for exploring narrative ethics, situated knowledge, and the relationship between abstract principles and concrete lived experience. Bernard is able to cling to the principles of socialism long after Stalinism has demonstrated its practical failure. Similarly, he persists in understanding what happened to June as figurative. Not having been there, he cannot grasp the concrete reality that is so unavoidably obvious to her.

He links the horror (the specifics of which we learn--if these are actual--only at the very end of the book) with Churchill's metaphor for depression, the "black dog." "June's idea," he tells Jeremy, "was that if one dog was a personal depression, two dogs were a kind of cultural depression, civilization's worst moods" (82). But for June, the dogs and what they signify are absolutely literal. They are starving animals that threaten her life, and worse. Jeremy, along with the reader, must decide whether the difference matters.


Tan A. Talese/Doubleday

Place Published

New York



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