Thursday, August 30, 2007

“On Chesil Beach”

There have been many reviews of this most recent book from Ian McEwan (for example here) so I won’t add another, just some observations.

If “Atonement” was writ on a large canvas, this, by contrast, is a miniature. The central dynamic is formed around the wedding-evening progression towards first sexual consummation. Florence and Edward are minutely-observed characters of their time (1962) - deeply repressed, inexperienced and in Florence's case, carrying baggage (more below). See the YouTube video featuring Ian McEwan reading from the novel here.

How to write about sex: physicality whose significance is in thought and emotion, participant and reader? How to avoid pornography, gratuitous sensationalism or the bad sex writing award?

How to avoid the fate of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose book "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" (which explores an elderly man's desire for sex with a teenage virgin) was widely reviled as a work of paedophilic voyeurism, casting an unpleasant window into the elderly writer's personal fantasy world? (Later reviews have been kinder).

McEwan has a great mastery of character and description-of-place. The slow-motion train-wreck of the evening and its shocking outcome is rendered through a series of episodes, each accompanied by flashbacks to establish the back story of how we got to this point. Florence's sexual inhibitions have roots which are signposted by McEwan with extreme subtlety. An reviewer, Lindy, writes here:

“I just finished listening to the audio book and in the interview after McEwan comes out and says that she was abused. It's supposed to be there for the readers, although never blatantly stated, but it's something that Edward never knows. McEwan originally had a sentence in the book after the explanation of Edward's not reading the paper (when he doesn't read about Florence's quartet's success) that he also wouldn't have read about her father's arrest for raping a 12 year old girl aboard his boat, but decided to leave it out.

"I think the lack of recognition of the abuse speaks to the time the book takes place in that such things just weren't talked about. It's more of a subtext that as readers today we can pick up on. In a way the book is just as much about the damage done by abuse that isn't dealt with as it is about the sexual repression of the characters, both of which are a product of the time.”

At the end of the novel, we zoom out to the rest of the lives of our two characters - fundamentally reset through one night’s actions, misunderstandings and failures to communicate.

Sarah, this little novel says so much about so many things, why were you disappointed?