One windy spring day in the Chilterns Joe Rose's calm, organised life is shattered by a ballooning accident. The afternoon could have ended in mere tragedy, but for his brief meeting with Jed Parry. Unknown to Joe, something passes between them – something that gives birth in Parry to an obsession so powerful that it will test to the limits Joe's beloved scientific rationalism, threaten the love of his wife Clarissa and drive him to the brink of murder and madness.
The stunning beginning of McEwan's latest novel delivers a vivid visceral jolt: six men run across a verdant English field, each bent on rescuing a man dangling by a rope from a helium balloon while a small boy cowers in the basket, about to be swept away. One of the would-be rescuers will become a victim instead, falling to his death. But the tragedy is just the catalyst of what will be another one of McEwan's (The Child in Time) eerie stories of bizarre events and personal obsessions. As always, his work is imbued with a mounting sense of menace as the unthinkable intrudes into the everyday. Narrator Joe Rose is astonished, then repelled, then deeply frightened when one of the men, an unstable, delusional young man called Jed Parry, sees the incident as fated, a divine command to him to bring Joe to God. The tightly controlled narrative charts Joe's psychological disintegration as Jed stalks him with accelerating frenzy. Jed's mad demands feed into Joe's sense of guilt about his behavior during the fateful afternoon and his frustration with his career as a science writer. The ultimate casualty, after two more violent events occur, is Joe's relationship with his lover, Clarissa, a professor and expert on Keats. McEwan wrings wry meaning from the contrast of poetry and science, the limitations of rational logic and the delusive emotional temptations of faith. As he investigates the nature of obsessive love, McEwan takes some false steps in explaining Clarissa's misperceptions of Joe's behavior, somewhat lessening his story's credibility but not its powerful impact. Perhaps it is this lapse that persuaded the Booker judges not even to nominate the book, touted by the British press early on as a sure choice for winner. Whatever its limitations, however, the tightly controlled narrative, equally graced with intelligent speculation and dramatic momentum, will keep readers hooked. First serial to the New Yorker; author tour.