In different ways, most of Ian McEwan's novels and stories are about trauma and contingency, and he is now best known as the great contemporary stager of traumatic contingency as it strikes ordinary lives. In The Child in Time, a child goes missing at a supermarket, and Stephen and Julie's domestic existence is shattered; in Enduring Love, Clarissa and Joe witness the death of John Logan as he falls from a balloon, are changed for ever, and spend the rest of the novel trying to absorb the consequences of the spectacle; Black Dogs is in part about how Bernard Tremaine, a politician, scientist and rationalist, drifts away from his wife, June (and vice versa), because of what he deems her fanciful, emotional, overdetermined reading of the trauma that was meted out on her in 1946 by the black dogs of the title. In The Innocent, set in Berlin in the mid-1950s, Leonard Marnham, a telephone communications specialist, is having an affair with Maria Eckdorf, a German. But they murder Maria's ex-husband and dismember his body and find that their relationship can't survive that traumatic experience. The central protagonists of Atonement have their lives ruined by the traumatic wrongful arrest of Robbie on charges of rape, while the just married couple in On Chesil Beach do not survive the trauma of their honeymoon night. (It is further intimated that Florence has been traumatised by sexual abuse at the hands of her father.) And then there is Baxter, contingency personified, who enters Henry Perowne's life in Saturday through that most random of urban events, the car accident.
LRB 30 April 2009 | PDF Download