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April 23, 2007

On Chesil Beach shows McEwan to be at the height of his powers, argues Lilian Pizzichini: On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Pp. 166. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007
Hardback, ú12.99

At times, Ian McEwan's evocations of the middle classes recall the masterfully sustained prose poems of Virginia Woolf or Henry James - exercises in restraint and subtlety, tact and repression. In all three cases, there are deep, dark rumblings of a something not quite so civilised underneath. These rumblings threaten and sometimes succeed in the casting-off of polite restraint. This tension gives McEwan's careful prose its forward momentum. Here is a writer enjoying the control he has worked hard at achieving. In all his recent writing, McEwan's tone has taken on a considered, discreet polish, as he distances himself from the shock of secrets bursting forth that characterised his earlier novels.

But the secrets are still there, and they haunt the youthful protagonists of his latest novel. Artistically, one can see the importance of dating Florence and Edward's wedding night in 1963 - it's the year sex was invented, according to Philip Larkin. They are innocents - their expectations pitifully revealing a dismal ignorance.

There is some nice socio-historical observation, too -

This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine,
the narrator says, and he goes on to describe the wedding-night first course of melon with a glacÚ cherry on top. The descriptions of location and manners are acute and washed with a wistful nostalgia. Writers often wax most lyrical when recalling what has been lost. And nothing can be more lost to us than time. But it is the dreadfulness of innocence that concerns McEwan here: its vulnerability. This vulnerability is present in the politics, which are innocent, too. He argued in Saturday that anti-war campaigners in Blair's Britain are na´ve. Well, so he seems to be saying here, were CND supporters in the Sixties.

The duffle-coated idealism works better here, though, as it is part of the pastoral idyll, and that is what he has created. Lost innocence, lost times, lost places. Chesil Beach, the childhood homes of Florence and Edward, are just as finely drawn as the two lead characters. They create a hymn to our past.

But it is a past that gives rise to blighted futures.

What stood in their way?
asks the narrator at a point when it looks as though Edward and Florence most definitely will not be getting it on.
Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself.
A history that we have shaken off but that has led us into what some would call an over-sexualisation of society. Young people forty years later will not experience the difficulties of a Florence and Edward. But that does not mean they have achieved the perfect union McEwan's innocents crave.

McEwan takes us through this one night in a young couple's lives so minutely we feel every shiver of desire, every moue of frustration and every shudder of Florence's fear. At one point, a stray pubic hair threatens to upstage its owner - so prominent is its role in the scene. This slow dance towards consummation (or otherwise) is exquisitely done, and the dancers' desire for love is so palpable that the reader feels more deeply for them than for any other character McEwan has created in recent times. They are intensely lovable - and his every digression into their past does nothing to detract from our concern for their future. It adds to it.

His brevity here is instrumental in creating a moment in time when character is revealed in such a way as to have far-reaching implications for how we contemplate who we all are. He is more successful than he was in Saturday because he has thrown off the shackles of contemporary Britain and the literary establishment's expectations of the Great British Novel - in emulation of the Great Americans. We cannot seem to pull it off, perhaps because the distance is not there, nor the longing. We are still in the process of creating ourselves. He has also thrown off his need for controlling the reactions of his readers - it is up to us whether his creation has greatness in it. Length, verismilitude, a weighty theme or seriousness of purpose do not dictate a novel's stature.

The theme here - or the conclusion - is the need for love and patience. No big ideas, just that. Edward and Florence's moment passes - as it does for all of us. This poignancy is almost unbearable, and McEwan succeeds in attaining tragic status for his young lovers. And he does so through subtle means. We never discover the reason for Florence's dread of sexual intimacy, though the clues are there. This opacity is psychologically true (she cannot bring herself to remember) as well as artistically suggestive. Much richer, and more mysterious, to allow the reader to bring their own ideas to the page. Much truer to life. Much more consummate control on the part of the author to allow the reader in a little. McEwan really is at the height of his powers.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

To read David Womersley's take on On Chesil Beach, see: Ian McEwan is the Vermeer of modern fiction, explains David Womersley.

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A thoughtful and thought-provoking review....

Posted by: Spoons at April 13, 2008 10:56 AM
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