The first half of Innocent is a beautifully written novel about a young Englishman working for British Intelligence falling in love with a German woman in a divided Berlin. The Cold War tension is felt while McEwan sets us up for the second half, which is a gut-wrenching, fast-paced thriller that is both chilling in its execution and almost impossible to put down. A truly great piece of historical fiction and one of McEwan's least-known and best works. Recommended By Jeffrey J., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
The setting is Berlin. Into this divided city, wrenched between East and West, between past and present, comes twenty-five-year-old Leonard Marnham, assigned to a British-American surveillance team.
Though only a pawn in an international plot that is never fully revealed to him, Leonard uses his secret work to escape the bonds of his ordinary life and to lose his unwanted innocence.
The promise of his new life begins to be fulfilled as Leonard becomes a crucial part of the surveillance team, while simultaneously being initiated into a new world of love and sex by Maria, a beautiful young German woman. It is a promise that turns to horror in the course of one terrible evening a night when Leonard Marnham learns just how much of his innocence he's willing to shed.
"So exhaustively suspenseful...it should be devoured at one sitting." Newsweek
"McEwan...a breathtaking master...has written a blueprint for the future of the genre." Time
"McEwan's name will be on everyone's lips with his startling new novel, an impeccably constructed psychological thriller....McEwan's neat, tensile prose raises this book to the highest level of the genre." Publishers Weekly
"Has the spooky crooked-angled danger-around-every-corner feeling of a Carol Reed film. It reminded me often of The Third Man and that is no mean feat." Jonathan Carroll, The Washington Post Book World
"A crackerjack novel....Make sure the answering machine's up and running before starting this lulu....You're not likely to brook interruptions." George V. Higgins, Chicago Tribune
"A gripping, absolutely unique story of love and suspense that you won't forget." Joseph Wambaugh
"Horrifying, mesmerizing...moves with a nightmarish inexorability." John Gregory Dunne
An impeccably constructed psychological thriller that Time magazine called "a blueprint for the future of the genre."
Leonard Marnham is a postal employee in postwar Berlin, when he is conscripted to do undercover work. Leonard joins a telephone espionage project, the Berlin Tunnel, which monitors calls made from East Berlin to Moscow. While involved with this project, Leonard has an affair with a German woman.
Leonard Marnham is assigned to a British-American surveillance team in Cold War Berlin. His intelligence work—tunneling under a Russian communications center to tap the phone lines to Moscow—offers him a welcome opportunity to begin shedding his own unwanted innocence, even if he is only a bit player in a grim international comedy of errors. Leonard's relationship with Maria Eckdorf, an enigmatic and beautiful West Berliner, likewise promises to loosen the bonds of his ordinary life. But the promise turns to horror in the course of one terrible evening—a night when Leonard Marnham learns just how much of his innocence he's willing to shed.
About the Author
Ian McEwan is the bestselling author of more than ten books, including the novels The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award, as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets. He has also written screenplays, plays, television scripts, a children's book, and the libretto for an oratorio. He lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. Who are the innocents in this novel? Countries? Individuals?
2. In many ways, innocence is a state to be much desired. As such, do people and countries always pay a price for their innocence? Put another way, is loss of innocence, by its very nature, always painful?
3. At one point, Leonard describes Americans, noting, "He had seen grown men drinking chocolate milk...they were innocent....They had these secrets and they had their chocolate milk" (page 187). Talk about the difference between the British and the Americans in this novel.
4. Glass tells Leonard, "[E]verybody thinks he has the final story. You only hear of a higher level at the moment you're being told about it" (page 16). Discuss this as a key to the novel.
5. Early in the novel, Glass says that it is secrets that make us conscious, that make us individuals, summing up, "Secrecy made us possible" (page 44). Talk about this as a theme in the novel.
6. Leonard helps kill a man, but it is in his near rape of Maria that his state of mind is truly malevolent. Is state of mind, more than actions, a barometer of guilt?
7. Discuss the logic in Maria's statement, after she and Leonard have killed Otto, "[I]f we are going to lie, if we are going to pretend things, then we must do it right" (page 186). Is morality an absolute?
8. Near the end, Leonard longs to tell his story, confess his guilt, and explain the step-by-step progression that led to dismembering Otto. Maria does do this and in not telling Leonard of her confession, she is loyal to Glass, not Leonard. Is it this betrayal that keeps them apart?
9. Talk about the end of the novel, and about Leonard's wish to come back to Berlin with Maria before the Wall is torn down. Will he get to Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Will they return to Berlin together?
Ian McEwan's novel The Innocent showcases the author's range and skill as he delivers unlikely, and welcome, combinations of suspense, ethics, philosophy, and political and religious ideology. In lesser hands, such a mix might be lethal. In McEwan's, it's intoxicating.