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26 January 2008

Sexless on the Beach

After my fourth Ian McEwan book, the balance has tipped towards "irritating." I genuinely like Atonement; I find the structure interesting and at least some of the characters are sympathetic. The Ian McEwan Guide to X section of Atonement was on WWII history and I wasn't massively interested but the narrative was convincing and I always like the unreliable narrator device, as well as the way the role of the writer and her relation to the reader is examined and re-evaluated here. I am undecided about Enduring Love (The Ian McEwan Guide to Science Writing, Atheism and Stalking); it certainly stuck with me and still troubles me. I like the Oxford / Chiltern Hills references but ultimately, I just didn't care that much about the protagonist. Saturday irritated me immensely and not just in the Ian McEwan Guide to the Political Situation in the Middle East, but also in the main plot, which follows the life of a surgeon and his family one Saturday. Something about it grated on me.

The events of On Chesil Beach also take place over the course of a single day - the wedding night of young, inexperienced Edward and Florence - although much of the slim novel looks back on how they got to where they are. It's obvious from page one that something isn't quite right between the two. We soon learn that Florence is somewhat asexual and has been using the "not 'til we're married" excuse for some time. Edward thinks he is finally about to get lucky but the course of true lust never did run smoothly and after a series of miscommunications, exacerbated by the ignorance and naïveté of Florence, trouble quite literally spurts out and a furious Florence storms out of their marital suite onto Chesil Beach, where they finally talk to each other, not that that helps matters.

Before we get there, however, Edward and Florence, in turn, relive various moments from their past - from their childhoods and from when they met. We don't hear much about the early days of their relationship - only that they met at a political rally and that Edward caught the train up to Oxford to visit her a lot. They never seem comfortable with each other or to make each other as happy as they claim. This description of the past serves only to cement our belief that their relationship is constructed around false ideas and that neither has the courage to speak their true feelings. Still, the back story does at least fill out each of their characters and their relationships with their families, but ultimately, I couldn't grow to like either of them very much.

Florence and Edward are quick to say how much they love each other - both out loud and in their reveries of the events leading up to the wedding. Yet, where is this love? They never seem to show it in their behaviour. In fact, they don't seem to know each other at all and nor do they really talk to each other. They are very different people and don't even understand each other, probably because they lock up their thoughts inside and don't discuss things. Even the marriage proposal was a bit of a joke: Edward pushes Florence's no-contact boundaries too far one day and causes her to lose her temper; his response is to propose but, like Florence's response, it is so automatic, you really wonder how they made it to the altar at all. Probably because both were unsure whether they were doing the right thing but neither had the balls to speak up for fear of offending the other.

The quotation on the cover, from The Independent on Sunday proclaims the book is "wonderful," "exquisite" and "devastating," so in case the first few pages failed to alert the reader to the fact that Edward and Florence are not the happiest of newly-weds. It took me a while to discover that the year was 1962 - from their attitudes and behaviour, it could easily have been 1942 or even earlier. The language is very overblown and euphemistic, particularly in the discussion of their previous sexual exchanges, and then, suddenly, McEwan rams in the word cock on page 31, which is so unexpected, it jars you; Florence would clearly sympathise.

Less jarring but still a bit off is the use of the word mates to describe Edward's friends. Throughout the book, it is made clear that Florence (daughter of an Oxford don and her husband, a successful business man, who live in Oxford) and Edward (brought up by his "poor," country bumpkin father in a tiny hamlet near Henley, who has to look after Edward's brain damaged mother and his twin sisters) are from different worlds so perhaps these inappropriate words were just another way that Florence was reminded of how different they were. She always says that money and their backgrounds mattered nothing to her and there is no reason not to believe her. For us, it's just more evidence that they were never meant to be.

I got to the end thoroughly unsatisfied. I'm not sure how the ending could have been improved but the whole story just irritated me. The best bits were the Oxford references - The Vicky Arms, Oxford High (my school), the "illicit [teenage] drinking at the Turl" (some things never change, even given 40 years), the yet-to-be-built motorway that would cut through the Chiltern Hills and the villages near Henley: Turville Heath and the comically named Bix Bottom (I always wanted to move to Christmas Common and kept leaving estate agents' brochures around for my parents when I was about ten; Fingest and Skirmett aren't so appealing, although Nettlebed has a great pub).

The Sunday Telegraph, on the jacket, compares On Chesil Beach to the "erotic misunderstanding" of Milan Kundera's characters; I disagree. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera's characters manage to be sensual, erotic and charismatic, in spite of all their issues. Florence and Edward are simply awkward; I would probably turn away in embarrassment during some scenes of the film version, if one is ever made. Ultimately, though, for all their flaws and problems, the only one of importance is their utter unwillingness to trust each other enough to tell the other what they are feeling, what they are thinking and what they are fearing.

Florence's thoughts - that she knew that consenting to touch Edward's thigh or to erotically eat a cherry would only push her closer to that which she fears the most (sex) but that equally, she didn't want to be such an utter failure - show that she has been following the path of resistance throughout and that it was easier to just go with the flow...until she wound up married and starts to wonder whether she should have been honest earlier. Edward too has his doubts and fears - often, they are about Florence's fears - and is just as unwilling to reveal them to his wife and to put himself on the line. To open his heart. To make himself vulnerable.

Ultimately, then, I just can't muster any sympathy for them - or any emotions, other than frustration and irritation. I'm just glad it was such a quick read; certainly not worth the wait for the paperback to come out. Gah. 1/5 for The Ian McEwan Guide to Miscommunication and the Dangers of Marrying Too Young.

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