Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

Love can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

“The beginning is simple to mark.”

My sister bought me this book without having any idea what it was. It was in a shop where a particular stand had all its books wrapped in brown paper, with keywords written on the outside to give a taster of what was inside. I believe these are done all over the place now, presumably to counteract the notion of judging books by their covers. Thus, it was a surprise to both of us as to what the book actually was inside the packaging. Fortunately, she knows me well, and the keywords aligned to give me a book I enjoyed, by an author I’ve read a couple of times before, Ian McEwan.

In this story, Joe Rose has his entire life changed by one, single moment. While he and his partner of many years, Clarissa, are having a picnic, they are interrupted by an out-of-control hot air balloon, with a man stuck in the ropes. Without thinking, Joe runs to help, along with several other people who happen to have been nearby, including farmhands and a passing doctor. The men try and bring the hot air balloon down and save the boy in the basket, but the winds are too strong and one by one they let go, until just one man is left clinging on, until the dreadful moment where he falls and dies.

Joe is overwhelmed and while checking the body on the off chance for its survival, he is followed by another one of the rescuers, Jed Parry, who asks him to pray with him. Joe politely declines the offer and returns to Clarissa, but later that night, Joe gets a phone call from Parry, informing him that he loves him, and he knows the feeling the reciprocated.

Thus begins a tale of pure obsession, as Parry continually tries to contact Joe, tells him how much he loves him, and begs him to stop playing games, leave Clarissa, and admit his returning feelings out loud. After the phone calls come letters, and then Parry is outside the flat at all times. As much as Parry is obsessed, Joe too becomes fixated on Parry, wondering what exactly he wants and how to get rid of him. But how much of it is real, and how much of it is in Joe’s head? As tensions rise, Joe has to struggle with the loss of his rationality, sanity and Clarissa while Parry continues his renlentless pursuit of the object of his affections.

McEwan often seems to like taking a very small moment and dissecting it to its absolute fullest. The first two chapters, indeed, are very minutely detailed. The first spends a number of pages discussing the moment that Joe and Clarissa first notice the balloon, and the second seems to be almost entirely about the fall of the dead man. While this is not exactly a fast book by any means, the pacing works for it and it’s so tense because of it. You can almost hear Joe’s mind unspooling as he struggles to cope with this sudden interruption to his daily routine.

I don’t know if the book is has ever really been considered a thriller, but it definitely is one, keeping you on tenterhooks throughout as you start to wonder which one is the more deranged, Joe or Parry. The novel is mostly told from Joe’s viewpoint, but one chapter slips into the third person to detail Clarissa’s day, and another four take the form of letters to Joe – three from Parry, one Clarissa.

Ian McEwan is a great writer, who takes ordinary people and thrusts them into difficult situations, as all good books should, and this is definitely one that has something wonderfully haunting about it and will linger in your mind for some time.