The Innocent is deceptively brilliant: for at least the first half of the novel it seems slight, thrillerish without the thrills, about a weakling and pushed-around fool. In the second half it explodes. The character violations that would normally damn the book instead make sense yet aren’t anticipated in advance, at least by me; much of the story is shockingly tense in ways that shouldn’t be. McEwan is very good at delayed resolution and gratification in a way most literary writers aren’t.
There are many essays to be written about The Innocent’s subtleties: about secrets, about sexuality, about the role of the unexpected, about fear, about pride, about loss, about the collision between fantasy and reality, about the instability of personality and its unpredictable development.
Firework sentences—the ones with elaborate metaphors or epiphanies or rhetoric—are relatively few, but almost all of them hum along and even the mundane sentences like “Maria reached for her skirt and blouse” are often given menace by their context. “Relatively few” does not mean none and some of the obvious ones stand out: “Leonard Marnham [. . . ] had never actually met an American to talk to, but he had studied them in depth at his local Odeon.” An Odeon is a great way to study foreign cultures, of course, a sort of science lab for the soul. Of Maria’s parents, she thinks or explains that “They still resented their daughter for the marriage she had made at twenty against their wishes, and took no satisfaction in the fulfillment of all their worst predictions.” Most of us find our prophecies wrong of failed.
Leonard is the innocent of the title, who discovers emotion at the behest of a woman. He is beset by apparently important work that conflicts with an inner life newly freed from his parents and the constraints of home, and after he meets Maria he thinks that “He knew that if only he had a little more leisure and were a little less tired he could be obsessed, he could be a man in love.” As if he plays a role: he could be “a man in love,” instead of more directly saying that he loves Maria. He needs that mediating, cultural desire to feel his own at this early stage of his development. As the novel proceeds things naturally change.
Without giving anything I’ll also note that the novel uses McEwan’s characteristic end-stage “zoom” effect, in which decades elapse in the final pages. Such a change is disconcerting, disconsoling—yet appropriate. It is brutal but in an acceptable way, or maybe just melancholy.