Sunday, January 27, 2008

book review: On Chesil Beach

This is one of those books that builds and builds and then delivers a climax that was nowhere near what you were expecting. The same could be said for the characters Edward and Florence in this novella by Ian McEwan.

Both main characters are paralysed with fear of the sexual act. The difference between them is that when it comes to the crunch on their wedding night he can get it up and start to get into the mood but she cannot. In a classic example of the dangers of not communicating she keeps her fears to herself and then gets into position where she has to try to explain something almost impossible.

His feelings are hurt by the reaction to his premature ejaculation and he becomes angry at her decision to run away down the beach. He dresses and goes after her - a move she both anticipates but then angers at because she has walked a good couple of miles by the time he catches up with her.

In one crucial conversation where misunderstanding about fear, love and lust leads them to both boil over their marriage crumbles away. By this point you have stuck with the weaving in of the back-story with the build up to the disaster that happens on the marriage bed. You realise they love each other and are soul mates in a way that most people only ever dream of.

So you are left wondering what happens next. Reading this as a man the expectation was that Edward would swallow his pride and goes and beg forgiveness after his anger cooled down. You might also have expected a similar move from Florence who said some hurtful things but could have pleaded that it was all to do with the heat of the moment.

But instead having played the wedding evening in almost slow motion McEwan then presses the fast forward button and life starts whizzing by with Edward heading into his forties, sixties and old age. For some readers this is probably where the feeling of an unsatisfactory ending creeps in. It happens quickly and it happens easily.

Just as in the telling the back-story McEwan stresses that these two characters might never have met if a different corner had been turned and another decision taken now fate works the other way. Now regardless of the opportunities, and there are presumably several, Florence and Edward do not run into each other again and as the years go by the chance of reconciliation is missed completely. There is a scene where Florence looks out for Edward at a concert she performs and remembers the promise he made many years before to be there but that is the only hint that she might have gone back to him. For Edward’s part his life drifts and you sense the missed opportunities that would have come if he had a life with Florence. With age comes wisdom and he realises that those words on the beach did not mean what he took them to mean and he should have been more patient.

It would have been interesting to see them meet again after the years of absence but that lingering thought for what might have been is exactly the one McEwan wants to leave you with. In that sense although the fast forwarding at the end could have been slowed a bit the book works and you leave it determined to listen more and speak less in an argument concerning love.

Version read – Vintage paperback


Lisa said...

This book was extremely frustrating for me. I don't have any problem with endings that are less than happy, but this one was maddening. I did have a problem with the fact that neither one of them ever attempted contact after the conversation on the beach. It's just not fathomable to me. I can't imagine having that kind of arrogant pride. That being said, I did really like the book (just not the ending). I guess the fact that I remember so much about it and still have such strong feelings about it having read it back in the summer is a testament to the writing of McEwan.

simon quicke said...

I know what you mean Lisa about arrogant pride. It is as if someone has kept a teenage outlook on life for the whole of their existence. You feel as if there was a great idea here with the build up to the moment things go wrong but the ending was just not clear so it whizzes by fudging the issue. Still as you say you certianly remember it.