Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Chesil Beach -- Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan has been one of my top five favorite authors of all time ever since I read Atonement at the prompting of my English advisor, Tim Spurgin, the spring after I finished student teaching. I sat in the Norlin Library of CU one long, cold February morning and fell in love with his prose: exacting, beautiful, and often heart-wrenching. I've read five of his novels to date, my favorite being Saturday, a story about the redemptive and ultimately necessary powers of literature in human experience.

On Chesil Beach, McEwan's newest work, is a slender volume that would probably barely reach 100 pages had it been published as a regularly-sized book. Instead, Doubleday chose to print it to appear as a pocket-sized novel rather than a slim novella. The book, like Saturday, chronicles one day (mostly) in the lives of the main characters, though On Chesil Beach is largely comprised of flashbacks that fill in the outlines of the main characters' families and upbringings. It is 1962, and Florence and Edward have just been married, and have settled in to their honeymoon in Dorset -- or, rather, they haven't settled at all. Both Florence and Edward are virgins, but they come to the marriage bed with very different perspectives: Edward is fumbingly anxious to consummate his union with his blushing bride and believes her to be just as anxious as he; Florence, instead, feels trapped into engaging in a physical act that repulses and frightens her, and she doesn't know how to tell Edward without breaking his heart. As the newlyweds try to find common ground, McEwan shows us glimpses into their pasts -- their childhood experiences, their relationship leading up to marriage -- to explain how the two have gotten to this impasse.

When I passed on a copy of Atonement to a close friend, he told me that he couldn't bear to finish the novel because he found it too painful: the decisions the characters made that had such profound effects on those around them were too much to bear. Conversely, I find his writing style agonizing because I don't want to put it down -- I want to read on, feverishly, to find out just what happens due to those painful decisions. McEwan is a master at this type of narrative; his characters are so real, and so flawed in ways that come dangerously close to our own imperfections, that it can be excruciating to watch them make our mistakes. On Chesil Beach produces a similar effect in its readership; the book is painful to read, but only because it resonates so much with our own experiences. (The narration in the book, a limited omniscient perspective from both Edward and Florence, provides an achingly beautiful text about the fragility of a new relationship, but to include passages from such a short book would most certainly give away too much of the story here.)

On Chesil Beach doesn't cover any new ground, as far as McEwan novels go. But the novel further establishes McEwan as a master of prose and as a provider of insight into the big questions about humanity, relationships, and the power of language in our lives.

Final Verdict: ***

1 comment:

  1. Based on your recommendation (and others who love Ian McEwon) I picked up Saturday at Cannon Beach in Oregon this weekend!