Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of The Innocent by Ian McEwan (Picador, 1990)

Leonard Marnham is a telephone engineer posted to Berlin in 1954 to work on a top-secret project to tunnel under the Soviet sector and tap into the Russia’s communication system. The project is being run by the Americans, but in the spirit of cooperation the British have been allowed to play a part. Somewhat naïve, Marnham is a fish out of water in a city carved up after the war, occupied by personnel from four countries, and still in ruins. On a night out with two American colleagues he meets Maria, a divorcee five years his senior. The two begin a passionate affair, but Marnham’s lack of worldliness and his secret work, and Maria’s past and ex-husband, place a strain on their relationship. In a city on the frontline of the Cold War, nothing can be taken for granted, and the two lovers are about to experience an event that will have consequences well beyond themselves.

The Innocent is a psychological thriller set in Berlin in 1954/55 as the Cold War starts to get warmer in the city. For much of the book, there is no thriller element, with the tale an in-depth character study of a naïve British telephone engineer and a German divorcee who works for the British Army, and the anatomy of their relationship. Leonard and Maria meet and fall in love, but their insecurities and circumstances mean their love affair does not run as a smoothly as it might. McEwan is very good at excavating the psychology of their interactions and how ill-judged words and actions have consequences that can sour their friendship. He also does a nice job of portraying the distrust and paranoia of supposed allies as Leonard works of a top-secret intelligence project shared between the Americans and British. It is only towards the end of the tale that Leonard and Maria find themselves in a very difficult predicament and the thriller part kicks in – some of which is not for the faint-hearted – and they are not just in danger, but also the top-secret work Leonard has been conducting, spying on the Russians via a tunnel dug under their sector (based on a true case undertaken by American and British forces). McEwan wraps up the tale nicely, but it is the fraught love affair and loss of innocence that remains after the story closes. An intense tale of love and disaster, with a strong sense of characters, place and time.


Christophe said...

Thanks for this review. The story has a bit of a Graham Greene feel to it, I sense from your review.

Rob Kitchin said...

Yes, I think that's a fair representation