Ian McEwan may now be the hottest thing going, but his earlier books are hit or miss. The Company of Strangers? Creepy. The Cement Garden? Disturbing. The dexterous elegance of books like Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach were still a long ways off.
His 1990 novel, The Innocent, is a flawed but absorbing transition between McEwan’s earlier works and the later novels.
The book is set in post-war, pre-wall Berlin, where 25-year-old Leonard Marnham is a British post office technician assigned to a secret spy mission (based on an actual Anglo-American joint spy effort). He falls in love with Maria Eckdorf, a German divorcee, five years older than him.
When things go wrong, they go horribly, sickeningly wrong. Yet McEwan deftly shows how each step down the slippery slope was justifiable and even necessary for the two lovers. Despite the violence, this is a love story. McEwen uses violent tragedy to speed up the natural termination of the romantic, passionate phase of the couple’s relationship. Unfortunately, his gruesomely accurate descriptions distract the reader from McEwan’s astute examination of the male/female dynamic.
Still, although moved along by espionage and homicide, it is the bigger themes of romantic love and the nature of intimacy – not the events of the plot – that are the core of the book.
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