Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My favourite thing about Ian McEwan's characters is how solidly these fictional creations reside in the world. His Edward and Florence in On Chesil Beach only underline this, and how their ties to the world are expressed in this small and subtle novel is a testament to McEwan's talent.

As in the brilliant novel Saturday, ordinary lives are drawn not on the periphery of history, but firmly entrenched within it, almost powerless against it. Edward and Florence are a young couple on their wedding night in 1962, honeymooning on Dorset's Chesil Beach in the South of England. "This was still the era... when to be young was a social encumberance." On the cusp of a new era, with whole languages yet to be invented, particularly pertaining to sexuality, and it is for want of these words that the penultimate moment of the novel spirals so horrifyingly out of control. And in the chapter which follows, McEwan's communication of miscommunication should be particularly commended.

The reasons I love McEwan's writing are similar to why I so enjoy Margaret Drabble's work--characters who live in the world, constructed of details, backstories and even their own paths not taken. Edward and Florence are recent graduates, Edward a historian and Florence a musician. These occupations inform the novel-- Edward's interest in "semi-obscure figures who lived close to the centre of historical events"; the pace of Florence's music in the background, and the cohesion of her string quartet analogous to the tautness of this narrative. And it is the combination of their respective situations which renders the novel's climax so inevitable and wholly realized. Such details are what allows, so essential in a novel so sparse, everything to mean something. Which I find truly a rich trip to discover.