Ian McEwan: Would you dare tread along On Chesil Beach?

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

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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.

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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 🙂

Happy reading!

Anakana Schofield’s Martin John will have you rooted to your Chair.

I wrote a story focused on Select Mutism and how the condition, if not eradicated, would impact an adult life. The story deals with themes of homelessness and mental instability, and my tutor Donal Ryan, upon reading it, recommended the following book…

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‘This is writing at its most fearless: visceral and searing, yet textured and nuanced; the darkest of comedy and the deepest of insight.’ – Donal Ryan, author of The Thing About December, The Spinning Heart and All We Shall Know.

Thank you, Donal, for your own incredible insight, because this book felt like an extension of my mind from cover to cover. This may sound dubious once you learn what the subject matter of Martin John is as you read on, but I promise you, however deterring the main character may be on the surface, this book is one of substance, skill and an astonishingly accomplished understanding of those who live on the periphery of our society.

Schofield’s format is important to note. The first ten pages are of only one line, slowly trickling into longer and sporadic paragraphs along the page. This jolt and start system sets the tone for the structure of the book. Like stepping onto the tube where Martin John and the reader are forbidden to go by his mother.

WHAT WE KNOW…Do we though? 

1. Martin John has made mistakes.

2. Check my card.

3. Rain will fall.

4. Harm was done

5. It put me in the Chair.

This refrain twists around in repetition, like an ivy vine weaving through the narrative, and evokes the cyclical and unaccountable mind of Martin John himself. What first confuses, slowly reveals itself to be darkly comic and heartbreaking. The ambiguous voice of the narrator questions the mental state of Martin John, his OCD and his sexual perversion, and in doing so allows the reader to delve into a mind that dishes up plates of shock and humour in equal measure.

The form of the novel would appear to disorientate the reader upon first glance, but Schofield’s seamless skill with sound and language captures the reader and ultimately leaves one empathetic with a sexual pervert. It allows us to question not only his own motives but those of the surrounding characters too.

Bye Bye Sanctimony. 

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Martin John may be mentally unwell, but is his mother too? Or Aunty Noanie? Or anyone, really, that may have a differing opinion to the norm, such as Mary in the end. We are all bound by constructs we willingly and unwillingly accept and until we are pushed to the extreme we do not know for sure how any one of us would react. Schofield interrogates the notion of sanctimony, in this west of Ireland voice we witness scenes of molestation, hysteria, dark comedy and insanity that we would otherwise never see in our day to day life. Thus, we sympathise with the characters that surround Martin John and their attempts to deal with his sickness but we are also in a position to judge how this people perceive themselves. They truly believe they are the sane ones and Martin John is the problem.

Is what I know what they know?

 (Don’t worry, this is intentionally unclear)

Mam spends a short time trying to piece together whether she has any responsibility and we would like to think we would do the same in her position but as the trajectory progresses we notice she is guilty of her own inhumane acts, however she commits hers in the name of helping others, which begs the question, is she in the right?

Martin John commits acts of uncontrollable behaviour, is he in the right?

Aunty Noanie turns a blind eye and believes one visit with her a week will sort him out, is she in the right?

Mary in the train station seems to embody a concentrated version of these sanctimonious traits. Insistent of working under the name of God, she believes she is the only one to help, and yet when under pressure and faced with crisis this sanctimony dissolves to reveal pure self preservation. When pushed to the boundaries of what we deem acceptable we throw all previous notions of self righteousness out the window and resort back to our inherently human need to do what we think is right; to protect ourselves.

These boundaries of acceptability are different in every person, so be it molestation, forceful restraint, mental manipulation or self harm, we never know how our own character may behave until these boundaries are stretched near breaking point.

It is never defined, nor does it need to be (Again, this becomes clear after reading). Schofield’s nuanced throws of ambiguous form leaves us wondering not only what role do her characters play, but do we have a role to play in her world? A world that can eerily be found outside our own front door.

I am thrilled with this recommendation, and I hope you will be too. I have to agree with The New York Times and our very own Eimear McBride who states that Anakana Schofield employs some serious literary gumption. She is definitely one of my top favourite authors for pushing the boundaries of narrative and deserves a place on any literary-head’s bookshelf for showing us the power of a novel filled with linguistic twists!

She is an unapologetic powerhouse, and I cannot wait to read her debut, Malarky, and anything that follows.

As usual, let me know if you shared the same fascination with this book and comment below with any more suggestions!

You can also find me on Twitter @DarrenODea1 and Insta @darren_o_dea to keep updated on my experience of the Irish Literary Sphere.

Happy reading!