Because the novel is also a mystery of sorts in which the tension builds gradually and inexorably, I don’t intend to say much about the actual story. Suffice it to say that like Saturday, the novel begins explosively with an event that shocks and shatters the observers; in this case the sudden appearance of a helium balloon that comes to ground in a large field on the outskirts of London, witnessed by a number of observers who race to the scene to try to rescue the balloonist and his grandson who is still inside the basket. Wind gusts threaten to relaunch the balloon and take it over an escarpment and possibly into overhanging power lines. Five men struggle to keep the balloon grounded until the boy can be rescued, but as it becomes airborne again, one by one they release the ropes they are hanging to in their vain attempt to keep it grounded. One of the men, Joe Rose, is tormented by guilt about finally letting his rope go in order to save his life. Another man hangs on even when the others have let go in order to save themselves; alone, there is no chance that he can bring the balloon to ground again, but by the time he cannot any longer retain his grip on the rope, he is too high and plunges to his death as the others look on helplessly.
As always, the story, itself, is gripping, but I was much more interested in the questions McEwan raises about memory and perception, philosophical and psychological questions that his character Joe Rose raises as he struggles with his own guilt feelings, and tries to deal also with being the object of an obsessive and irrational love from one of the other would be rescuers. As Joe reflects on the reliability of memory, he descends into a kind of Cartesian skepticism regarding not only memory, but also of so-called direct perception.
No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way. Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We’re descended from the indignant passionate tellers of half-truths, who, in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced ourselves…when it didn’t suit us, we couldn’t agree on what was in front of us.And further:
Neuroscientists report that the subjects asked to recall a scene while under a magnetic resonance imaging scanner show intense activity in the visual cortex, but what a sorry picture memory offers, barely a shadow, barely in the realm of sight, the echo of a whisper.Kant may have been the first philosopher to point out that, contrary to common belief, memory is not like a camera; it is not a reproductive faculty, but more a creative one. He calls it a synthetic faculty that essentially makes up a narrative from the very limited data offered. While the memory may become sharper with repeated tellings, that is not due to an ability to analyze the memory (say for more detail), but a supposed clarity or certainty that simply becomes more fixed with each retelling, no matter how true to reality the memory is. Memory is less a picture of the past than a drawing or painting.
Those in the grips of Clerambault’s Syndrome take even denial of reciprocity form the loved one as a kind of signal of repressed or hidden love. Facial gestures or completely innocent actions by the beloved are taken as signs of love; nothing can count as counter evidence to the obsessed lover.
Another line of the story not mentioned yet, but pivotal to the action is the effect the obsession has on the love between Joe and his partner Clara. She eventually comes to doubt Joe’s claims about being followed by Parry and receiving letters and phone calls. When he tells her of his research into the syndrome, and tries to warn her of Impending danger, she is dismissive in her replies. “You think you can read your way out of this…Don’t you realize you’ve got a problem?”
Will the heretofore strong and passionate love Clara and Joe have shared survive this intervention in their lives? Will it survive Joe’s obsession with his stalker? These and other questions in this intriguing mystery story readers will have to answer for themselves.
I’m not sure how I missed this novel written in 90s; I thought I had read all of McEwan, but I was delighted to have come across it, and I recommend it to you as one of his best.