The opening chapter of Ian McEwan’s latest novel is a tour de force. As in Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey – a marvellous novella, still unaccountably underrated – a large cast is introduced in a moment of breathtaking drama. In Wilder’s story, it is as they plunge to their deaths from a breaking bridge; in McEwan’s, the story begins as a hot-air balloon lunges out of control, bringing tragedy to a spring morning above the Chilterns. But the two writers place very different interpretations upon death and destiny. In Wilder’s hands, what looks like a freak misadventure turns out to have been determined from on high. It is God’s Plan to make sense of the chaos, redeeming the suffering. McEwan’s vision is different: here, logical positivism rules. Accidents occur randomly, without meaning – or, as the Americans put it: shit happens.
The narrator of Enduring Love is a science writer and broadcaster called Joe Rose. As the novel opens, he is sharing a picnic with his long-standing girlfriend, Clarissa. At the far end of the field two farmhands are working. A doctor is driving his car along the adjacent lane; a