Thursday, November 06, 2008

the last book I read

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

It's 1962 and Edward and Florence Mayhew have just got married and are staying in a hotel near Abbotsbury, at the north-west end of Chesil Beach. We join them as they toil through a grey and rubbery roast beef dinner, and contemplate in their differing ways an impending sexual initiation that promises to be equally grey and rubbery.

The date of 1962 is obviously carefully chosen, falling as it does smack in the middle of the period, in Philip Larkin's words, "Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP", during which sexual intercourse was, supposedly, invented. Things evidently haven't kicked off properly yet, as both Edward and Florence are still virgins. Edward is pretty keen, despite his understandable nervousness, but Florence views the whole thing with horror; indeed she has a fastidious dislike of any kind of physical intimacy, even kissing. So the omens aren't promising, and when, after some awkward fumbling and clumsy removal of garments, Edward's fears of, in the quaint phrase of the time, "arriving too early" prove to be all too prescient, Florence panics and makes a run for it.

Incidentally, I know Edward had been, hem hem, "leaving himself alone" for a while prior to the wedding night, but his performance here:
filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid
- would seem to indicate a potentially profitable future career in the porn industry. People pay good money for that sort of performance.

Anyway....Florence flees out onto Chesil Beach, and (after getting some trousers on) Edward goes out after her. A brief and unsatisfying exchange of views follows, at which point Florence hops in a taxi and buggers off. And, erm, that's about it, really.

This is, again, a very short novel - 166 pages, but the large and widely-spaced print means it's even shorter than that makes it seem; if it were printed as small as the Solzhenitsyn book I doubt whether it would be much more than 100 or so. All that there's time for apart from the bald description of the wedding night are some neatly-drawn sketches of the protagonists' family backgrounds - sufficient to get across the point that Edward is marrying slightly "above himself", and also to offer just the merest sniff of something odd going on with Florence and her father on their trips away together on his yacht which might offer an explanation for her frigidity.

If you can't even be arsed to plough through 166 large-print pages, then a light-hearted one-page synopsis of the novel by fellow novelist Jim Crace can be found here.

After the wedding night ends the remainder of the novel takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the rest of the characters' lives (Edward's, mainly). After spending 160 pages describing (with a few digressions) an hour or so, covering the next 50+ years in less than ten pages feels like a bit of a neck-snapping change of pace, and I'm not sure what the purpose of it is, or what the novel gains from it.

I think this is a more engaging book than Saturday, though, which I found unconvincing for reasons I can't really put my finger on. I think it's probably just that I tend to agree with the assertion (made here and more indirectly here) that McEwan's recent output is slightly more cosy and sober and self-consciously "literary" and "writerly" than his early, punky, macabre stuff. If I had to recommend a place to start I would go for the wonderfully weird and disturbing short story collection First Love, Last Rites and then move on to the mid-period novels The Child In Time and Black Dogs.


Anonymous said...

I would recommend starting with Enduring Love. Innit.

electrichalibut said...

That's very good as well. The weird thing about it, though, is that the opening 20 pages or so describing the set piece with the balloon are so brilliant that the rest of the book is almost an anti-climax afterwards.

Maybe that's just me, though. Wouldn't be the first time.

Monster Paperbag said...

I bought First Love from a second-hand-book shop. Immensely enjoyed it :). Will check out Chesil Beach, too.