Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Chesil Beach

[Finally, we end the time travel streak]

This is a book about sex. Or rather, this is a book about two people having sex. More specifically, this is a book about two people not having sex, not talking about sex, and not being emotionally prepared for sex.

At the beginning of
On Chesil Beach, it's 1962 and Edward and Florence have just been married. They're both young, educated, and completely inexperienced with sex. During the course of their honeymoon retreat on Chesil Beach, the characters have dinner, go for a walk, and then attempt to consummate the marriage.

Using flashbacks, different perspectives, memories, and an anachronistic narrator, McEwan develops these characters so strongly that they seem to breathe and almost walk off the page. Almost entirely do we get each of their lives, from the beginning (or at least the beginning relevant to the story) and the end.

Both of them are so innocent when it comes to sex, both of them so apprehensive, that when they finally come together, and attempt to do it, there are disastrous consequences. Like McEwan's earlier
Atonement, all of their lives seem to impinge on a singular moment, a defining moment. What happens after are always in the shadow of this one event.

It's a testament to McEwan's power and skill as a novelist that the outcome of this moment is developed from the characters' psychology. Combined with his powerful and elegant prose,
On Chesil Beach is a masterpiece, albeit less then 200 pages.

It's a small novel, but that doesn't mean it isn't substantial. There are all sorts of things to examine in this work. For example, the narrator's curious awareness of time. It gave me a feeling that the narrator was looking back on things, like he or she was situated in a different spatial or chronological point. The effect is elegiac. It's very haunting.

The novel's structure is elegant, as well. Composed of five parts, it's set up like a classic tragedy, even though this is a small story of two people. I was reminded of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, as if Edward and Florence's emotional journey could be compared to the twilight of the gods.

But in McEwan's deft hands, their fates are as important as the gods, if not more. The author is taking a shot at the repressive society of Sixties-era England, when two young people couldn't have a frank conversation about sex. Like many great novels, this is a book about communication, or lack thereof. McEwan is stressing the dangers of a society where we can't talk to each other. However, he isn't bludgeoning the audience with his point. No, McEwan's skills are more subtle than that. This novel is a perfect example of that.

On Chesil Beach is a uniformly awesome novel. Its characters are sharply defined, its themes grand, its prose exquisite, and ultimately, it is heartbreaking. McEwan is a huge talent worthy of following no matter what his subject matter, even if it's a book about sex.

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