Saturday, January 12, 2008

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian Mcewan

[This review contains some spoilers but rest assured they will not, in any way, affect your reading of "On Chesil Beach"]

When Ian McEwan won the Booker prize for Amsterdam, I picked up his "First Love, Last Rites", his collection of eight short stories at the British Council Library in Mumbai. These macabre horror tales about sex made quite an impression on me (In the very first piece a 13-year old boy seduces his 12-year old sister and then, well, something happens). McEwan's style is clipped, almost clinical but the effect he achieves is vivid. Each of the stories was like a road full of ghosts: I'd start reading and finally emerge out of the tale bleary-eyed, confused, and more than a little disoriented, admiring the writing and trying to sort out what exactly the writer was trying to say.

What those stories lacked though was any kind of emotional accessibility -- you admired them, you admired the writer's sheer technical skill and always -- always! -- you ended up saying "Wow". But that was it. (McEwan's last two books, Atonement, and Saturday, are beautiful exceptions to this.)

After the weird experience of reading McEwan's sexually charged horror stories, I am therefore happy to report that McEwan's latest book "On Chesil Beach" returns him to his preoccupations with sex -- but that, despite the horror, it is an emotionally accesible, wonderfully written piece of work. (You can read an extract that appeared in the New Yorker).

It begins like this:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.

"On Chesil Beach" is the story of that wedding night and of its heart-breaking consequences. Edward and Florence are the quintessential couple. He, 23, is a working-class boy, who has just majored in history and has a fine career ahead of him. Florence, 22, is a promising musician, a gifted violinist. They met, fell in love, and got married. Their courtship, McEwan tells us:

... had been a pavane, a stately unfolding, bound by protocols never agreed upon or voiced but generally observed. Nothing was ever discussed—nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition. The language and practice of therapy, the currency of feelings diligently shared, mutually analyzed, were not yet in general circulation. While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not customary
to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.

As the novel opens, they are both sitting down to dinner, their first night after the wedding, on their honeymoon at Chesil Beach. Dinner, of course, is not on either of their minds. Edward is both terrified of and looking forward to what is coming. Florence has the deeper problem, an almost pathological aversion, almost a distaste, to any form of sex. But she loves Edward
... not with the hot, moist passion she had read about but warmly, deeply, sometimes like a daughter, sometimes almost maternally. She loved cuddling him, and having his enormous arm around her shoulders, and being kissed by him, though she disliked his tongue in her mouth and had wordlessly made this clear. She thought that he was original, unlike anyone she had ever met. He always had a paperback book, usually history, in his jacket pocket in case he found himself in a queue or a waiting room. He marked what he read with a pencil stub. He was virtually the only man Florence had met who did not smoke. None of his socks matched. He had only one tie, narrow, knitted, dark blue, which he wore nearly all the time with a white shirt. She adored his curious mind, his mild country accent, the huge strength of his hands, the unpredictable swerves and drifts of his conversation, his kindness to her, and the way his soft brown eyes, resting on her when she spoke, made her feel enveloped in a friendly cloud of love. At the age of twenty-two, she had no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Edward Mayhew. How could she have dared risk losing him?
Should she tell Edward about her fears? Is Florence's aversion something that could be easily explained by the mores of those times (remember we are talking about 1962)? Or does she have a "problem" -- does she need therapy? McEwan doesn't say but as dinner advances and the two lovers circle closer and closer to their moment of truth, he fill us in on the details of their courtship, their greatest hopes, their deepest fears. Somewhere along the way, I found myself actually in the room with Edward and Florence, heart in my mouth, watching with my hands over my eyes, almost like in a horror movie, saying furiously "Dont mess it up, you two -- do NOT mess it up".

Do they mess it up? To say what happens and how it happens would be giving too much away but suffice it to say that McEwan's cold, clinical, almost medical prose is perfect in its pitch and the story of Edward and Florence's wedding night stayed in my mind long after I finished reading it.


Harini Sridharan said...

Welcome! and thanks for sharing :).
Very uncommon to see such a topic occupying an entire story line. For that matter, an interesting topic :). And from the excerpts, seems to be very articulately put too.

scritic said...

Oh, its a small book, a novella, really. Less than fifty thousand words totally, the actual book is less than 200 pages, that too with big-type. You might say its a long story, which is why its a good book to start with.