Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 25, 2008

In one of my more confident moods, I am prone to view life as a series of “rites of passage”. First day at school, the entrance test, starting in a hostel away from parents, getting to know a girl, falling in love, first kiss, first job and salary, marriage, sex, children, illness, grand children, witnessing death — all these have their idiosyncratic demands as rites of passage. Commonplace as they may appear, the impact they have on different individuals is different. Looking back one may think of them as being easily manageable and that often they are attributed with extra importance than they merit. Yet, I think, they carry with them the power of present which is difficult to shake off. Some people take the impact in their stride and some never recover from the impact. In a way, how one reacts to the transition through these rites of passage while exercising control on ones ego not only define a person but to a large extent the course of his/her life itself

Over the weekend I completed reading Ian McEwan‘s “On Chesil Beach” and to me this short novel is yet another demonstration of the breadth McEwan‘s writing capabilities.”On Chesil Beach” is a brilliant depiction of failure of people to handle some important rites of passage and how strong personal egos prevent reconciliation and the unplanned consequences that it can lead to. Edward and Florence are the two main characters in “On Chesil Beach” who fall in love as students — he an ardent student of history and she an equally ardent student of classical music — spend considerable time with each other before their marriage and get married in very happy circumstances. Yet things go horribly wrong on their honeymoon night not only with the actual experience of consummation but also on account of the clash of the strong personal opinions that they hold about consummation and expectations on the general nature of physical relationships between a man and a woman. Florence leans towards a platonic relationship with Edward or that is the impression that she gives Edward. From Edwards angle this is completely unacceptable. Thus begins the deterioration in relations, drift from one another and distance between Edward and Florence. In fact the drifting is so drastic and swift that while reading through I could not help feel sorry for both Edward and Florence. Any feeble hopes of a reconciliation and rapproachment are snuffed by the strong ego of Edward and misunderstanding of Florence’s intentions and her confessedly genuine helplessness. Neither party makes an attempt to reconcile. Florence decides to devote her life to her passion for classical music and becomes quite successful over a period of time and Edward drifts from one thing to another, one relationship to another but still manages to have a moderately succesful career as a music shop owner. Edwards own desire of writing books on lesser known personalities of history remains unachieved. Towards the end McEwan makes Edwards say: “….. he had never met anyone he loved as much, that he had never found anyone, man or woman, who matched her seriousness. Perhaps if he had stayed with her, he would have been more focused and ambitious about his own life, he might have written those history books..when he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now he saw that her self effacing proposal was quite irrelevant… all she needed was the certainty of love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them…. Love and patience — if only he had had them both at once — would surely have seen them both through…. this is how an entire course of a life can be changed — by doing nothing“. But by then it is too late for both Edward and Florence

I was not that affected when I first read the book but later on when I reread a few of the important pages, it dawned on me that McEwan was discussing some of the fundamental issues that can dominate aspects of human relationships e.g. Does love stand as an insurance to the biological shortfalls in a marital relationship? Will it? Can it? Should it? Can there be an agreeable compromise? If so what is it? Can one bear the consequences of a road taken? Can one stop thinking about the possible outcomes had an alternative approach been adopted? These uncontrollable human conundrums are the crux of the book. What makes the book very appealing is that McEwan manages to place the story of Edward and Florence in those momentous decades of forties to seventies when England has seen a fundamental shift in societal values and cultural mores. To a certain extent it appeared to me that these changing norms and mores provide Edward and Florence the necessary support and sanction to carry on with their lives in a manner they deem fit. McEwan shows enormous skill in situation building, characterisation, sharp psychological sketches and brilliant felicity with language

I was in two minds after reading his Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam” as to how much he rightfully deserved the fame that was bestowed on him. However, reading “On Chesil Beach” has moved me forward on the path of conviction of his capabilities as one of the talented writers (that I am aware of) writing in English today. May be his other well known books like “First Love, Last Rites”, “In Between Sheets“, “Enduring Love” and “Atonement” would firmly deliver me at the doorsteps of a clear conviction

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2 Responses to “On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan — A review”

  1. mrs. h. said

    I like your blog and your taste in books. Have you read McEwan’s “Saturday”? You might enjoy that. Also, Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader”, which has the added benefit of being very, very funny.

    “On Chesil Beach” was a book that really touched me, and as I’m currently teaching it, I’m still very fascinated by it. The only criticism I can think of is that McEwan is perhaps being a little smug about his writing skills – it often has a bit of a peacock-y feeling to it, as in “look! look! see what I can do! yay! let me dazzle you by my austerely beautiful prose! Squawk! Squawk! See me do free indirect style that would have Jane Austen panting in envy!” Beyond that, what a lovely novella.

    • mangalapalliv said

      Dear Mrs. H..
      Many thanks for your kind comments. I am yet to read his other books. I have most of his books and one day will read them without fail. Also many thanks for your suggestion on Alan Bennett’s “Uncommon Reader”. As far as Ian McEwan is concerned – I am not yet a complete admirer of his – the way I am of a Julian Barnes or a Bruce Chatwin. I am still evaluating him. There is no doubt that he is one of the most talented contemporary writers on the scene today.

      I will look forward to your continued interest in my blog and also your inputs

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