Wouldn’t you just know it? I start to dabble in the twenty-first century, and the book I read doesn’t even win the Booker. That’s gratitude for you. Hmph. Well, can’t see myself bothering with Anne Enright’s The Gathering, even with the accolades of the Booker panel, but I have now read one of the shortlist at least. My library-trainee-chum Lucy, a McEwan aficiando to the death, leant me her copy of On Chesil Beach to see if Ian could redeem himself in my eyes. For the record, my previous experience with Mr. McE goes something like this: Atonement – great, especially the beginning; Enduring Love – amazing opening chapter, kinda tailed off after that; Saturday – umm, what happened Ian? So I’m pleased to say that, while On Chesil Beach isn’t particularly like any of the others there, it met with approval from Stuck-in-a-Book and McEwan is back in my good books. There’s almost a pun there.
Have now returned Lucy’s book, so shall type my thoughts as best I can without it. I’m sure you all know the premise by now – virginal newly-weds Edward and Florence experience an awkward honeymoon, and McEwan uses this tiny canvas to present their lives and the lives of a generation. Two such fully-formed characters he’s not written since Briony in Atonement – no cliches (imagine the accent, if you will) or easy portrayals, these are real people experiencing real situations. The only issue I take is that Florence seems like a real person from about 1910, not 1962… feels a bit like McEwan flipped through his Decades of the Twentieth-Century Book and picked the first one which wouldn’t have them encumbered by a World War. Still, that’s a minor quibble, and we’ll let it pass.
McEwan (controversially) called On Chesil Beach a ‘novelette’. Controversial because this more or less disqualified him from the Booker shortlist, but somehow they managed to sweep that under the carpet. Whether or not it was wise to label the book thus, I think I agree with the term – if McEwan had only included the honeymoon scenes, then this would be a (long) short story. Since he intersperses these sections with substantial chunks of background, it’s more than that, but it still doesn’t quite feel like a novel. Usually huge amounts of back story irritate me, and here they weren’t always welcome, but generally they are woven in in such a way as give characters deeper dimensions affectively. I certainly didn’t want more – the characters’ backgrounds offer the central story, almost a vignette, poignancy and integrity, but any attempts to make this a thousand page tome would have lost all the spark and depth.
I shan’t spoil the ending – except to say that it is the opposite of Atonement in terms of effect. Much of Atonement examines the consequences of a single action; On Chesil Beach examines the single action and allows the reader to extrapolate the consequences.