Thursday, August 7, 2008
Book Review: On Chesil Beach
I came to Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach knowing nothing about it except that lots of people have recently read and recommended it.
From the first paragraph, I realized I was about to read something by a master author. I guess I subconsciously group authors, and I'm not through puzzling out my exact groupings, but one of them is "master." There is something masterful in every sentence that McEwan writes. In literature classes in college and in AP English in high school, I was taught to pay close attention to everything I was reading because writers choose their words carefully. I realized as I began this book (and Jayber Crow also comes to mind) that I have largely let that power of concentration slip away amidst a sea of good plot reads and intriguing, though not necessarily powerful, characters.
But with McEwan, I have to sit up and pay attention. He demands it.
The primary story takes place in just a few hours in 1962: the wedding night of newlyweds Florence and Edward. Key to the novel is that this all happens just a few years before "moral liberation" of the 1960s. Frances and Edward are innocent; they haven't even spoken of their physical relationship before this night. And Frances is absolutely terrified. Between scenes of the wedding night, McEwan takes us through their year or two of courtship. Unless you've read other book reviews, you don't know whether they are headed for marital bliss or disaster (and I won't tell you here).
McEwan is never frivolous with his language, and I love that. He is intense, poetic, and grave. There is a strong sense that life was more serious then—that today we are conditioned to being casual with consequences. Although this is a fast read at 203 short pages, this isn't a light beach read. I loved On Chesil Beach so much that I immediately (literally, as I had it with me) began reading Atonement. Review of that coming up soon!
If you've reviews On Chesil Beach, feel free to leave your links in the comments.