McEwan toys with the idea of dropping a stalker into someone’s life. He looks at the effect from different angles, including the narrator’s sceptical girlfriend – and given that I’ve stumbled across McEwan’s unreliable narrators before, there was also the element of mystery: is this essentially the narrator’s delusion?
After a cracker heart-pounding incident to start the novel (think, perhaps, of one of the better visual prologues in a James Bond movie), anyone hoping for an action-packed thriller would be disappointed. Which in one way is odd, as there are a couple more wildly dramatic scenes – assassins, guns going off – to come, but the overwhelming voice in this story is measured and analytical. This is deliberate and foregrounded: that’s exactly the nature of our meditative scientific intellectual main character. There is far more rumination than detonation (sorry, I felt compelled towards antithesis in that sentence – some deep sociological programming at work or something).
I wonder whether this was (well) written for a different reader than myself. I mean his characters generally feel pretty authentic (although the hippy diversion gets a bit weird – and my suspicions about the reliability of the narrator were really piqued by the outrageously deus ex machina perfect climactic timing of the stalker’s final assault, and the ice-cool sharp shooting of our supposedly everyman academic who’s never touched a gun in his life), and some of the interactions between the narrator and his girlfriend are insightfully and articulately observed. Maybe it’s the genre that is not so much up my alley. Someone in amazon reviews referenced Hitchcock, and I get the impression that this sort of is he/isn’t he telling the truth game is what the book was largely hanging on (very ‘Shutter Island’ – which is probably as close as I’ve got to this sort of thing). Moreover the dramatic incidents are largely MacGuffins, taking second place to the psychological elements. McEwan doesn’t get anything wrong, but I don’t suppose I really enjoyed the ride that much, and the (popular and robust) idea wasn’t quite enough for me. Maybe others enjoy the vaguely creepy/uncomfortable feeling that pervades the story.
As an aside, I dare say other readers responded differently (I think there’s room), but the climax appears to vindicate the narrator hugely, and make the girlfriend come across as a right unsympathetic cow: are we still meant to give her some credence when she still carps at Joe for his obsessive overreaction to the murderous stalker?