Sunday, 11 April 2010

On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)

--The blurb--
"The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented musician. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford, where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged in an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward's native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervor of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy, and sensitive Florence - and having his affections returned with equal intensity - has utterly changed his life. Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness and the confidence to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence's anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself to her husband in their honeymoon suite."

--The review--
The Swinging Sixties are years that are fondly held in Western consciousness, life being free and revolutionary, where personal independence was gained and old imperial shackles lost. This perception stands in stark contrast to the prim and frigid setting of McEwan's On Chesil Beach, where the quiveringly intense setting perfectly reflects the excitement and nerves of the evening, while allowing us to get to know the characters via the dreamlike leaps through time created by a non-linear narrative. The courtship between Florence and Edwards is gently, fluidly and organically traced, and McEwan's skill shines through in doing this: while simultaneously delighting readers with his eloquent descriptions of the scenery, and building two very realistic and human characters through the story of their relationship, tension is also layered effectively, compelling the reader to continue.

In reading this novel, we perhaps gain a truer insight into the situations of several young people of the 1960s: confined by a lack of education relevant to the real world, and still forced in many ways to conform to parental and societal expectation, there was a very real risk of being trapped for life in an unhappy or unfulfilling relationship due to the stigma associated with separation, divorce, and sex before marriage. The difference in this case is that Florence and Edward do not end up taking that risk, and the reader is left to decide if they made the right choice, and whether their ensuing lives are happy or unhappy.

The ending of this novella is slightly Truffaut-esque, with quick and slightly avantgarde and nostalgic recapitulations of how the characters' lives transpired, and while others might find this conciseness pleasing, others might find it to be more of a let-down. However, the novella's overall result is moving, beautiful, inspiring and slightly tragic, standing testament to McEwan's ongoing talent.

Other works by Ian McEwan
First Love, Last Rites (1975)
In Between The Sheets (1978)
The Cement Garden (1978)
The Comfort of Strangers (1981)
The Child in Time (1987)
The Innocent (1990)
Black Dogs (1992)
Enduring Love (1997)
Amsterdam (1998)
Atonement (2001)
Saturday (2005)
Solar (2010)

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