What used to bug me, in my years of studying English Literature, is how do we deem a story a literary text? This is coming from someone who has slaved over Ulysses, felt a kinship to Birkin in Lawrence’s Women In Love, who holds an admittedly unusual affiliation with Dick Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and keeps Woolf and Maeve Brennan by his bedside to dip into when he cannot sleep. Though, I cannot dispute the overall effect these novelists have had on me, still, the reasoning behind what makes a literary novel has always evaded me. Until I read On Chesil Beach…
As you can see from my previous reviews, I am a sucker for a good story, be it popular fiction or a gripping crime-thriller, and I don’t believe in literary snobbery (there’s a reason people get published, whether you connect to their writing or not) but McEwan has shown me the process of telling a good story, through moulding metaphors and shaping motifs to build an ultimate artwork that allows your story to transcend above the confinements of narrative.
Now, you may be thinking – ‘well, that is a lot to learn from such a short novella’ and you would be right. Of course, I must give credit to my tutor, Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland, to have opened my eyes to this as it was he who explained how McEwan implements these tools and thanks to Giles, I can now see them coming through in my own work, as well as using them for structural analysis of any novels I’ve picked up since that may bear the why-so-scary term ‘literary’.
The novel, set in the Summer of 1962, revolves around the afternoon of Edward and Florence’s wedding day. In use of flashback and omniscient narrator we slowly learn that these two are from two different worlds, and both come to their wedding night with very different, very private, expectations and fears of what lies ahead of them. And little do they know, that the decisions they make on this night will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
First of all, we have all seen how masterful Ian McEwan is with prose in his novel Atonement, but I love the time and commitment he inserts into the smallest of moments in this novella. I was captivated by the telling of two strangers eager to escape childhood and the simplicity of human nature to completely misread a situation. Where one shows shyness to hide their fear, the other picks up as a flirtation and is in no doubt of their love. It shows the frailty of human relationships even when we feel they are at their strongest. How we think we know someone so completely, that we can be ignorant to their inner distaste and betrayal. How, even on their wedding night, one’s rigid disgust can be misread to be utter passion.
To understand what I mean by the weaving of metaphor I mentioned in the beginning of this post, please read the story again and make note of how many times you come across the words hand, white/purity, waves/sea, breeze and starched. See how the images change using the same words, the sly foreshadowing McEwan employs to the subconscious mind. Read in awe the temporal advancement of these figuratives and watch as his strands of metaphor culminate to condition our response to what appear to be a mere three to six lines but hold a great weight in relation to our leading woman.
Though addressing gender roles and etiquette in the 1960’s, McEwan doesn’t seem to be pointing to any societal flaw, per se, or indeed a gender misrepresentation, but manages to press on certain matters that interrupt the mental ebb and flow of our human psyche. He merges both Edward and Florence together to forget their gender and really see how intricate our call and response as humans is.
Florence, an accomplished musician, shows her strength for the first time, in the rehearsal room, away from Edward ‘she was no lamb to be uncomplainingly knifed.’ Here she fights the barricade of her convention, yet lets it silence her when she is alone with Edward. Where ‘above all she did not want to hurt his feelings’ and he mistakes ‘her turmoil for eagerness.’ Oh, it seems almost cruel to marvel at these moments of uncomfortable misinterpretations as they attempt to understand each other’s sensitivities. I could go on forever as I do in previous posts, but this is a novella I would hate to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it.
It only seems appropriate to end on an example of Ian McEwan’s power to use imagery that transcends mere words, the sentence that left me reeling…
‘This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.’
Please like, share or comment below if you have any thoughts of your own on this sensational book and I would like to thank everyone who has done so in the past.
It is overwhelming to see people taking the time to read these posts, never mind even commenting. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know you guys through the comment section and those off you who have emailed. I love nothing more than to chat about books!
I can see our very own interwebbian book club slowly coming to fruition 🙂