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Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Black Dogs (1992)

by Ian McEwan

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I find that I was right to be pleased to find in a secondhand bookshop an Ian McEwan that I hadn’t read. What gave me most pleasure in this volume was, I think, the way he addresses issues which the reader can so well respond to. For example, when the narrator, Jeremy, talks of having reached forty or so years of age he could differentiate between different stages of later life. ‘There had been a time when I would have regarded it as plainly untragic to be ill and dying in your late sixties, hardly worth struggling against or complaining about. You’re old, you die. Now I was beginning to realise you hung on at every stage – at forty, sixty, eighty – until you were beaten.’

Of course, the main thematic focus of the book lies in how we should approach life – with Bernard’s rationalism and pragmatism or with June’s sense of something spiritual and the need to work on our own nature with its inherent capacity for evil before we engage with other more material aspects of life. McEwan seemed to me at the end of the book and through having the example of feeling possibly June’s departed presence in the bergerie stopping him from being stung by a scorpion to be veering more on June’s approach even if he gives Bernard’s approach a full hearing.

I also feel McEwan knows just how to use words to create that reality we recognise such as when he evokes the suffocating feel of an old folks’ home by describing the ‘bilious, swirling carpet, that continued out of the hall, under the wire-mesh glass firedoor, along the corridor, to occupy every available inch of public space’ while the patronising way in which the occupants are treated is captured in the way a nurse enters June’s room ‘sing-songing in the first person plural’. How much sharper can writing get?!

As I write this, I’m not in a position to look up what a divagation is but that’s how McEwan’s narrator describe what has been written. In fact, the book doesn’t have a traditional structure. Yes, McEwan dangles the two wild dogs incident as some source of suspense until the reader finds out what happened near the end, but this isn’t a book you’d read for the plot. It’s almost post-modern in my limited understanding of that word – and certainly quite cutting at one point towards the reader when McEwan has Jeremy discuss the nature of novels at one stage: ‘Turning-points are the inventions of story-tellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth’. So, in this novel McEwan offers what he has his narrator descry or, at the least, see as some sort of necessary sop to the reader. ( )
  evening | May 17, 2015 |
“So June´s idea was that if one dog was a personal depression, two dogs were a kind of cultural depression, civilisation´s worst moods.”

June and Bernard were both fervent Communists when they went on their honeymoon in France in 1946.June’s view of the world changed when she was attacked by two enormous black dogs, which she fought off with a knife after becoming separated from Bernard while out walking. They later learned that the dogs may been left behind by the Gestapo, who used the animals to terrorize the villagers. The encounter taught June about the nature of evil and finds God. In contrast Bernard has never respected her faith so despite being married for 40 years they spend large parts of their marriage apart.

The dogs are supposedly a metaphor for the potential for corruption and violence in modern Europe. Underscored when Jeremy, the narrator, and Jenny, June and Bernard's daughter,visit a Polish concentration camp,and when on a trip Berlin Wall Jeremy and Bernard just as the Berlin wall comes crumbling down they are caught up in a mob scene.

However, if I'm brutally honest I find this connection tenuous at best. For me it was just a tale of two people who,despite professing to love each other deeply, find when June becomes disaffected with Communism or at least the Communist party that they have very little in common so decide to live separate lives. June as something of a recluse whereas Bernard becomes a politician and minor celebrity.

Now this is the third of McEwan's books that I've read because they are on the 1001 list and the third that has left me underwhelmed. Perhaps he's just not for me. ( )
  PilgrimJess | May 11, 2015 |
This is not my favorite McEwan, and I initially gave it three stars when I read it in 2006. But after a rereading, I've decided that I do like it a bit more. It's a nice little family story, with ruminations on Good and Evil, Communism and Materialism, Memory and Meaning.

Jeremy, the narrator, is preparing to write the memoirs of June, his mother-in-law. She had an experience while on a walk in the French countryside during her honeymoon that affected her beliefs and changed the course of her life and her marriage.

The action happens during the time of the collapse of the Berlin wall, and a connection is drawn between the forces that affect change in Europe, and the forces that affect the course of private lives and family histories. ( )
  SirRoger | Sep 5, 2014 |
This had to sit on my palate a while after finishing it for me to really enjoy the taste. The surface level of the story is fairly pointless. A man and woman become husband and wife and then grow apart based on a mysterious encounter with a couple of black dogs. The book explores their ideologies, how the man believes politics can save the world and the woman believes only inward transformation can save the world. Along the way their's a very interesting exploration of the impact of World War II on Europe and an account of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Looking deeper in the text, however, it became apparent to me how deep this story goes. The black dogs directly relate to the horror inflicted on Europe through World War II and the adherence to the belief that political ideologies can change the world for the better, even when the ideologies are responsible for horrible atrocities. There are reactions of withdrawal, both in the wife and in the Polish concentration camp which refuses to admit that Jews were killed there. There are reactions of a political nature that seem to say "if only we try again, we can get it right this time", as seen in the husband and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A very interesting read for someone like me who grew up in America in the 70s and 80s at the end of the Cold War. Not McEwan's best work, but as an investigation of how the second half of the 20th century affected individuals and their relationships, it was a fascinating and worthy read. ( )
2 vote sbloom42 | May 21, 2014 |
Well written, as always, but I can't say I really grasped the point of this book. There are interesting glimpses of important times in modern history and relationships and differing worldviews, but all in all it is relatively abstract and sketchy. Using the completely oblique perspective of Jeremy makes the book a little too detached from the story, in my view. I also felt as if the really interesting story would have been that of Jeremy (and Sally), which is outlined in the preface, with Bernard and June's lives as an anecdotal sideline - rather than the other way around. ( )
1 vote evaberry | Jun 3, 2013 |
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An uneasy mixture of mystery, contemporary history, and novel of ideas.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, Kerry Fried (pay site) (Jan 14, 1993)
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In these times I don't, in a manner of speaking, know what I want; perhaps I don't want what I know and want what I don't know.
-Marsilio Ficino, letter to Giovanni Cavalcanti, c. 1475
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Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people's parents.
It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. Its ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all--who they married, the date of their death--with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.
"The truth is we love each other, we've never stopped, we're obsessed. And we failed to do a thing with it. We couldn't make a life. We couldn't give up the love, but we wouldn't bend to its power. . . . Whenever I'm complaining about some latest social breakdown in the newspapers, I have to remind myself--why should I expect millions of strangers with conflicting interests to get along when I couldn't make a simple society with the father of my children, the man I've loved. . . ?
[H]e was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near infinity of private sorrows. . . .
"The work we have to do is with ourselves if we're ever going to be at peace with each other."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385494327, Paperback)

Set in late 1980s Europe at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Black Dogs is the intimate story of the crumbling of a marriage, as witnessed by an outsider. Jeremy is the son-in-law of Bernard and June Tremaine, whose union and estrangement began almost simultaneously. Seeking to comprehend how their deep love could be defeated by ideological differences Bernard and June cannot reconcile, Jeremy undertakes writing June's memoirs, only to be led back again and again to one terrifying encouner forty years earlier--a moment that, for June, was as devastating and irreversible in its consequences as the changes sweeping Europe in Jeremy's own time. In a finely crafted, compelling examination of evil and grace, Ian McEwan weaves the sinister reality of civiliation's darkest moods--its black dogs--with the tensions that both create love and destroy it.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:08 -0400)

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Black Dogs is built around a brilliant short story, a mesmerically slow-motion encounter with two terrifying dogs by an English couple who are honeymooning just after the war in a French mountain village.

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