Date finished: September 1st 2016
Myself and Ian McEwan have a chequered history.
I love hearing about the favourite writers of others and the fervour and passion with which they argue their authorial supremacy, but the idea that there are people highly anticipating the next release by Ian McEwan strikes me as vaguely perverse, like watching women’s volleyball. It’s not wrong to enjoy it, but being too enthusiastic about it probably means you’re on a register somewhere.
He is a capable, indeed a brilliant writer. His prose is lucid, relatable, pregnant with imagery. He almost rivals Julian Barnes, one of my favourite authors, in this regard. But somehow he always manages to balls it up somewhere, as though he’s the clumsy comic-relief author of the liberal post-war set. Amsterdam was approaching perfect until the third act came along and descended into an offensive farce; The Cement Garden was a competent debut novel that promised much, but I’ve seen little return on the investment in other novels; The Comfort of Strangers was an intriguing premise but would’ve achieved no more than a C-grade in a creative writing class.
McEwan seems to need to be unnecessarily grotesque. There’s nothing wrong with transgressive writing – on the contrary I enjoy it – but McEwan seems to try too hard to be amoral, and it tends to come off heavy-handed. He’s always struck me as a master of writing at the micro level: adjectives, verbs, imagery; but its at the macro level that he falls short, his plots falling into a farcical moral black hole from which hope cannot escape.
But my previous lamentations aside, it’s probably about time to review On Chesil Beach, the latest McEwan I’ve opted to expose myself to. This volume focuses on the wedding night of Edward and Florence, newlyweds in the early 1960s. Edward is eager to consummate their marriage, but Florence has misgivings – indeed, deep-seated issues – about any act vaguely sexual in nature. In the potentially-conjugal honeymoon suite, McEwan explores Edward and Florence’s relationship, how they reached this point and what will become of them.
To begin with, On Chesil Beach inhabits the same hopeless canvas as the rest of McEwan’s work, and the analysis of their sexual incompatibility – touted as “awkwardly comical” on the covers – leans confidently toward the awkward end of that dichotomy.
But as time passed, I found myself warming to the story. Indeed, as you can probably tell from the above rant, I was fully prepared to be disappointed and scathing of On Chesil Beach, but, before long, McEwan began to get into the flow of things. The awkwardness of the first act over, we get a look at the backstories of our protagonists, and see how Edward and Florence became tangled up in one another’s lives. As the story progresses and reaches its rather literal climax, it becomes hard not to feel invested in the relationship of the two characters, whose only real failing is an inability to communicate, and in the stuffy sixties, is that really so hard to understand?
Published in 2008, On Chesil Beach is ten years more recent than any other McEwan I’ve read, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it more. A more mature and capable author seemed to captain this dark-hearted novel through its stormy plot, with a firm hand on the tiller to stop it shooting unexpectedly off into a whirlpool of absurdity.
It’s by no means a perfect novel, but it doesn’t need to be. As much as I hate to admit it, On Chesil Beach has renewed my faith in McEwan and his potential to one day write a novel I could love. On Chesil Beach isn’t that novel, but the fact that it makes me believe that such a story could exist is a string to its bow. I’m not sorry for all the nasty things I’ve said, Ian, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt a while longer.