It is the mid 1950s and Leonard Marnham, the English “innocent” of Ian McEwan’s 1990 novel The Innocent, has joined a group of mostly Americans in an espionage endeavor in Berlin. A tunnel is to be used for spying on the Soviets (a real-life venture), and Leonard is duly put to technical work. By and by he becomes romantically involved with a German woman called Maria, whose ex-husband occasionally, drunkenly batters her. . . An agonizing episode drives Leonard and Maria to kill the ex-husband in self-defense, and since the Berlin law cannot be trusted in this instance, the desperate couple dismember the lout’s body and place the parts in suitcases. Alas, the love affair is undermined by this, and after a while the spying operation is subverted.
What Leonard encounters is a non-political violence between wars—the war against the Nazis and the Cold War. The violence of the ex-husband is an ordinary violence, but no less shattering to the individual than national or collective violence. Violence, like life, goes on, in war or in peace, and often it paves the way for either betrayal or what looks like betrayal, as it does here.
The trauma and the contingency which James Wood says McEwan’s novels (e.g. Atonement) are about rush to the fore in this gripping book. They aren’t pretty.