28 November, 2007

'On Chesil Beach', Ian McEwan

Much has been written about Ian McEwan's latest, published this year, principally that it is a) very short (in my version 166 pages), b) that it didn't win the Booker Prize and c) whether or not its premise and resolution are plausible.

Briefly, the novella commences with a virginal British couple in their early twenties, Edward and Florence, at a hotel in Dorset on their wedding night. It is 1962, 'a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible'. The book recounts how they met, touches on their families' backgrounds and returns between each digression to their awkward hotel suite. It is not a plot of action, rather a dual character study, irremovable from the time period. As Edward says, as they finally reach the pure white bed, the only things standing in their way are 'the tail end of religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all'.

The book is short on dialogue, long on description, characterisation and observation. With its length, it is best appreciated in a single sitting - set aside a time and go cover to cover, allowing a cohesive reading that gels the key events, telling background and unforeseen outcome.

Sex is of course a key theme of the novella, but it is played out around the main characters, rather than by them. An extraordinary paragraph on just the third page involves the Dorset flora in a dumbplay of consummation. Florence, as a violinist, is given her passionate outlet through performance. The bias of perspective in the novella falls to Edward, which I found a little isolating, until on second read I noticed more closely the language used to describe Florence's playing.

There is an enormous amount squeezed into these 160-odd pages: two lifetimes and an entire conservative national culture at its cusp before the sexual revolution. The sweep of emotions and concepts is contrasted with the sharpness of the couple's final conversation in Part Five. It's a dramatic change and I think that making the jump with the author is the hardest task for the reader. Previously the novel has relied almost entirely on observation; the majority of that in hindsight. Now we face a conversation where the participants say none of the things they mean, but inform the audience through their interior monologues of what their counterpart cannot know. This exchange is the early 1960s: an educated man and woman unable to express themselves about intimacies, when they can, and are expected to, comment on the Soviet Union or identify birds by their song.

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