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.
... 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?