Wednesday, October 15, 2008

REVIEW: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. Published 2007 by Doubleday. Literary Fiction.

On Chesil Beach, the latest by acclaimed British writer Ian McEwan, is a very short novel about what may be the worst wedding night in the history of wedding nights. McEwan has been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize six times, and won once, for his 1998 novel Amsterdam, also a short book about a troubled relationship. At least two of his novels have been made into movies- 1981's The Comfort of Strangers became a creepy film starring Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson, and of course 2001's Atonement, in my opinion McEwan's best book, was adapted recently into a movie starring Keira Knightly.

On Chesil Beach has something of the cinematic about it as well- a novel that, while jumping back and forth between the past and present, takes place mostly on a single night, in a single place, enacting a very intimate drama between a man and a woman who understand each other very little and empathize with each other even less. It is the 1960s, and Florence and Edward, two very innocent young adults, have courted, married and arrived at their wedding night with very little understanding either of sex or of each other. Let's just say it doesn't go well for them.

First of all I am a fan of McEwan's, but I don't think all of his books are winners. I loved the Booker-winning Amsterdam right up until the end, when I threw it on the floor after one of McEwan's twist endings ruined the story for me, and have always had mixed reactions to his signature use of violence and psychological horror. Having read some of his darker books, I will never, for example, read The Comfort of Strangers after the claustrophobic menace of the film. Here the horror is almost all psychological; the physical eruption that marks the climax of the book also marks the height of Florence's panic, and leads to the night's denouement. The true horror of the novel comes in a slapdash piece of dramatic irony at the very, very end, when the narrator tells the reader something very important that Edward never learns, something which could have changed everything about their lives together. The fact that Edward never learns this crucial fact is McEwan's final act of cruelty towards characters who seem never destined for much happiness.

I can't say I loved On Chesil Beach but I respect McEwan's accomplishment in creating these vivid characters and enacting this heartbreaking, frustrating drama with his customary panache and skill. I don't think anybody these days writes as well and as consistently as he does. Even though I have issues with him from time to time I think McEwan is one of the best writers in English today and I am always so happy to see a new book of his on the shelf, because I know one way or another he will make me feel something and he will make me think. Next time let's hope he treats his characters a little better than he did On Chesil Beach.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

14 comments:

Shana said...

Marie, I love McEwan and really enjoyed Chesil Beach. I agree about his writing. He says so much with so few words. Very, very talented.

Okay, now I'm going to have to email you or send you a private message on LT because I don't remember the thing at the end you're talking about. I do remember suspecting somthing throughout the book, or at least during the last half that I thought was never really confirmed. It's been a while since I've read this book though.

Shana
Literarily

Lisa said...

On Chesil Beach is hard to love, but parts of it left me breathless. You can't help but ache for these characters, even as you see them rushing headlong into disaster.

As I recall, the twist isn't completely spelled out, but your suspicions are definitely confirmed - but it's been a while since I read it.

I remember thinking at the time that there are probably a lot of relationships that live or die based on some small piece of information that we share or keep to ourselves. I thought that came through very clearly in the story.

Heather said...

I love McEwan and I think I'm going to have to check out On Chesil Beach. He does so much with so litte--confined to small periods of time with isolated characters, etc. He kind of comes across as pulling a modern James Joyce (ala, Ulysses) with his works.

Great review, thanks!

Serena said...

Marie: the title just sounds cinematic to me!

Karen Harrington said...

I like what Lisa said - OCB is hard to love.

It is. But there's always something in McEwan's writing that sticks to my brain.

candyschultz said...

Enduring Love was also made into a film with Samantha Morton but it would definitely fall into your category of dark.

My opinion is that Ian McEwan is the greatest living writer in the English language. I have read all of his books but I hated On Chesil Beach. I was so glad it didn't win the Booker.

I agree with you that Atonement is his best book but Saturday is a close second.

S. Krishna said...

I felt the same way about this one. I didn't enjoy it but I respected it.

sharonluvscats80atyahoodotcom said...

I just wrote a review on Dewey and I'm going to give a copy away during the readathon. It was a very good book.

avisannschild said...

Interesting review. I loved Atonement (the book, haven't seen the film), so I then picked up Enduring Love and didn't like it much at all. Didn't see the movie for that one either. Since those are the only two IM books I've read, I'm not sure whether to read more or not.

Oh and by the way, several of his short stories and a couple more of his novels have been made into films. Plus he's written some screenplays...

Alea said...

I'm hoping to love this one, it seems pretty interesting to me. After Atonement I think I went down the list to see what looks most interesting for my next McEwan and it was this! Hope to read it relatively soon!

lifeinbooks said...

I find that I love all McEwan—even the McEwan that I don't like. He is just so exacting. I was surprised more people didn't like On Chesil Beach myself, because it was just so brutally real, but I think that harshness is something a lot of people find unattractive in their leisure reading.

Andi said...

I think I liked this one quite a lot more than you did, but it was also my first McEwan book (and the only one to date). However, I think we both agree that he's a talented writer. I was bowled over by his ability to create such a tangibe sense of...claustrophobia? I guess that's the only way I can categorize it.

Ali said...

I, too, have mixed feelings about McEwan's books. I tend to love every sentence but the big picture leaves me wishing for more. On Chesil Beach was no exception, especially as it suddenly skipped ahead to the end and I realized how little I cared what happened to these characters if they weren't going to do what I wanted them to do.

Anna said...

I've never read McEwan. I couldn't get into Atonement, but I'm thinking of giving it another try after reading such good things about it. I really enjoyed your review of this book, and I think I'll have to check it out. I'm intrigued about the cruelty to his characters. Sounds interesting.

--Anna
http://diaryofaneccentric.blogspot.com