Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Review of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

'Falling in love was revealing to her just how odd she was, how habitually sealed off in her everyday thoughts'. 

I would like to be clever like Alain de Botton. I am not. I never will be. I imagine that it must be nice to be a public intellectual who writes about Proust, as opposed to a narcissist who occasionally drinks too much wine and pretends to have read Proust to seem more intelligent.  In a recent interview, de Botton revealed that his goal in raising his children is that ‘they will never read a book’, as ‘reading and writing are a response to anxiety’. As an avid reader and aspiring writer, I can confirm that I am almost always anxious and I must, therefore, agree with Alain de Botton. Yes, he’s right. Again.

Dedicated followers of my posts (so that’s probably just my mother and a couple of government agencies), will have noticed that I have neglected this blog recently. This could possibly be because recent developments on the relationship front temporarily quelled my anxiety, and thus my need to write, or because I have been working my way through À La recherche du temps perdu- I shall leave you to decide which is true. The stresses of a family holiday to Portugal, however, gave me a renewed need to read and write, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach proved to be the perfect antidote to my angst and the post Christmas lull (for lull read hangover).

The main action of On Chesil Beach takes place in 1962, ‘a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible’. The novel’s protagonists, newlyweds Florence and Edward, have travelled from Oxford to spend their honeymoon in a ‘hotel on the Dorset coast’. Their happiness is, however, overshadowed by wedding night fears, which neither feels able to share. This reluctance to talk about sex threatens to ruin their fledgling marriage.

The story is beautifully told by an omniscient third person narrator. The narrative is focalised through both of the protagonists, thus giving the reader an insight into the minds of both Edward and Florence whilst maintaining critical distance, so that neither character seems more or less sympathetic than the other. This device creates pathos, but also gives way to dramatic irony, as the reader is more aware of the thoughts and fears of the characters than their new spouse and one feels a sense of frustration at their inability to share their feelings.

While the main action takes place in 1962, Ian McEwan deftly uses analepsis, enabling him to depict the upbringings and backgrounds of Florence and Edward and the blossoming of their relationship. This device proves to be particularly effective, as it allows for the narrator to juxtapose the couple’s happy courtship with the ‘unutterable’ anguish they feel due to the pressures of their wedding night. Prolepsis is also used later in the novel to track the events after the fateful night in 1962. The use of flashbacks and flash-forwards not only aids character development, but also allows for wider exploration of the change in social attitudes during the lifetimes of the characters.

Alexander Herzen writes, ‘the death of contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul’.  The actions and attitudes of the characters in this novel, however, show that for those brought up prior to the Sexual Revolution, even marriage may not dispel the social mores instilled in them, to the extent that even discussing sex seems indecent. It makes one conscious of the vast changes brought about by the Sexual Revolution, but also makes one realise that, despite such sociological shift, the beliefs of individuals will not change in an instant.

Despite finding something oddly admirable in Alain de Botton’s aforementioned opinion, I can’t help but think that if anxiety encourages me to read a novel as beautifully crafted as On Chesil Beach, then it is a small price to pay. I remain, however, jealous of Alain de Botton’s mind. Oh, and of Ian McEwan’s talent. All this jealousy is making me anxious.

Happy reading.  

1 comment:

  1. Just seen this review. Think 'On Chesil Beach' is possibly the most perfectly structured novel I've ever read. So good it made me want to give up my feeble attempts at novel writing when I read it a few years ago. I could never write anything that good.