Penelope Lively in Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived] also takes us to the past, but in this intricate little novel we see the divided Berlin of the 50’s as seen through the eyes of a young British man caught up in a joint project of England and America to spy on their Russian counterparts. McEwan uses a historical fact for the kernel of his storyline—an audacious and brazen attempt to tunnel under Berlin into the Russian controlled Eastern sector for the purposes of tapping Russian phone lines. And while the spy-story and its convoluted subplots occupy a good bit of the novel, I see it much more as a love story between the innocent Brit and a slightly older and much less innocent German woman. There is no doubt that the novel is at least partly about the arrogance of the American forces in Berlin and the duplicity of their dealings even with their supposed British allies, but it is also the story of a young man coming of age rather late in life and trying to learn how to love and trust.
McEwan is quite obviously interested in the very concept of innocence and its close neighbor, ignorance. His hero, Leonard Marnham, is an innocent in so many ways. An employee of the Post Office, he suddenly finds himself in Berlin, using his knowledge of tape recorders and telephones to help Americans spy on Russians. And he is a virgin not only to spying, but also to sex. Not so surprising, perhaps, for a twenty-five year old man in 1955, but he is profoundly naïve as well as being a virgin. The German woman whom he meets and falls in love with is only slightly older at thirty, but she has already been married and has already learned a lot about the brutality of many men. And although Leonard is instantly alarmed and ashamed when he inadvertently admits his ‘condition’ to Marie, she is heartened by it. Here is a man who can be taught—who will not assume that he already knows all there is to know about women and sex, and who might turn out to be gentle as well as worthy of trust.
And so for quite sometime, this book appears simply to be a sweet and rather lovely love story with the reader pulling for this couple to maintain and nurture their love. Of course, McEwan never lets the reader off easily. There are twists and turns to this plot that I would never give away even if I had the time to do so. Instead, I will simply remind readers unused to McEwan that he can and does often write about events that are alarming, even gruesome. Let me say simply that this is not a Hollywood love story, so readers should beware.
What continues to intrigue me about McEwan is his incredible ability to describe in great detail a moment or a day in a life, and to catch the reader up in the detail. One always knows when reading him that he has done his homework and that his meticulous descriptions are lucid and informed.
I recommend both of these books to you, and more importantly, both of these authors. They create feasts for their readers, and I am so happy to be sitting at their tables. I have been talking about Penelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacranda: A Childhood Perceived and Ian McEwan’s The Innocent.