If ever there was a lesson in how to write an opening chapter of a book, this is it. Enduring Love, published in 1997, opens with a man in a field struggling to control a hot air balloon, which holds a small boy.
Watching is the story’s protagonist Joe Rose, failed scientist and now science writer, and his girlfriend Clarissa, and four others. Four men rush towards the balloon and attempt to get the child out but a gust of wind blows the balloon upwards and all four, together with the balloonist hold on as it floats higher and higher.
The scene ends in tragedy but its the fateful meeting between Joe and Jed Parry, one of the other men, which sets the story in motion. Pretty soon Jed is stalking Joe and declaring his undying love for him – or is he? As Jed’s actions become more and more sinister, while the police and even Clarissa begin to doubt Joe, the reader starts to wonder if Joe is perhaps an unreliable first person narrator.
Its classic clever plotting from McEwan and what I love about his writing is that he is so good at creating compelling plots that are carried along by brilliant writing. I need to confess here that he’s one of my favourite authors and this book only raised my opinion of him.
His style is heavy on exposition and ‘telling’, so for a beginning writer it feels as though he ignores those conventions that we are always drilled on as being so important. And he again explores questions of science as he so often does through his characters.
What I particularly like are insights into the way people are. For instance, Joe’s girlfriend Clarissa has been left unable to have children. She sees the act of a man trying to save the child in the balloon as the ultimate sacrifice of the love of a parent for a child, and asks for the ghost of her own unborn child to forgive her. I think women who aren’t able to have children genuinely do feel a grief for unborn children that is very difficult for others to understand and this is an intelligent insight.
There’s also a great scene with a grieving wife. The fine details that characterise his writing, such as the raw skin between this woman’s nose and upper lip, are always so fresh.
Then there’s the impact Jed’s stalking has on Joe and Clarissa. His paranoia, her doubt, start to infect their relationship.
‘Self-consciousness is the destroyer of erotic joy‘ he writes, and of how they had been somehow ‘unconvincing’ in bed, and you know just what he means. As their problems deepen, they become ‘scrupulously casual’ and lose ‘the trick of love’.
There’s a riveting scene at the three-quarter mark that sets the story on its course towards the climax and then, just when things seem to be getting quite frightening, another hilarious scene involving a drug dealer, a country cottage and some feral hippies breaks things up just before the climax.
If you love the combination of an intriguing plot and fantastic, intelligent writing, you’ll love this.