Monday, April 30, 2007

On Chesil Beach an intimate novel of stunning clarity and insight

Books now read in ’07: 38
Title: On Chesil Beach
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 4-30
Pages: 166

In 12 previous novels, including Booker winner Amsterdam and the superlative Atonement, Ian McEwan secured a reputation as one of the finest writers of our generation. In On Chesil Beach, his newest novel, McEwan once more confirms that his lofty status is well earned.

On Chesil Beach is a small, intimate novel. It is the story of Edward and Florence, who we meet on their wedding night in 1962. They are “young, educated and both virgins” and, as McEwan observes, “they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was impossible.” Edward is eager -- too much so it turns out – but aware of all that he does not know. Florence, who believes Edward to be sexually experienced, knows only that the very idea of sex disgusts her.

Little wonder then that their honeymoon is anything but a night of marital bliss. All this, however, is merely a run up to McEwan’s central theme; simply put, it is that little things mean a lot within the scope of human relationships. Their first foray into sex goes awry, but Edward and Florence may still move beyond this moment. Indeed, it is likely that many long-married couples have looked back in laughter on such a night, shaking their heads in wonderment at all they did not know.

It takes only a word, a gesture, but Edward and Florence are too caught up in their anger, their pride, their dignity, to reach out in love. They have made the fatal error of putting their own self-interest before the other. And so it is that what takes place on Chesil Beach, more than the events in their bed chamber, is of vital importance to the course of their lives.

From the opening page, when we meet this couple engaged in an intimate honeymoon dinner, to the almost comic events of their bed chamber, to the tragic events on Chesil Beach, McEwan writes with consummate artistry. To almost cinematic effect, he takes us back in time to their first meeting in Oxford and, after Chesil Beach, we are given a brief, but all encompassing glimpse of how their lives have unfolded.

This is a superb novel of stunning clarity and insight.

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