Context: Read this while we were meeting the church staff for lunch at our immense church in Seoul, South Korea.
This is the most amazing book. It’s the fourth by McEwan that I’ve read and I think he’s finally cracked it. All the other three (Amsterdam, Enduring Love and Atonement) all begin superbly but have mediocre endings. They all seem to trail off about halfway through. Amsterdam might be the exception but still it didn’t live up to my expectations. On Chesil Beach is superb from the very first paragraph and ends magnificently. This was beaten to the Booker by Enright’s The Gathering which must be phenomenal to have taken the prize that year. [EDIT in 2014: I’ve now read The Gathering and McEwan was robbed. It’s the antithesis of phenomenal.]
The novel pivots on the Dorset wedding night of two young lovers, Edward and Florence, torn between their 1950s’ upbringing and their 1960s’ awakenings. The tension runs right through the writing from start to finish. The tension that two people feel on their wedding night is superbly recreated. McEwan has a gift of bringing the inner workings of the human psyche to mind and has shown it off to remarkable effect here.
Throughout the short book, there are flashbacks to their previous lives so that, as the wedding night progresses, with each return to the couple, we understand more and more about them and what they bring to the intimacy of their situation. We also understand more than each of them know about each other and this gives us a fantastic empathetic viewpoint from which to watch the unfolding drama of misunderstanding and frustration.
It kind of helped that I read this with Mrs Arukiyomi. We took turns reading it aloud or read it silently together as we travelled to the Far East. That we honeymooned in Dorset about 20 mins drive from where the couple’s fictitious hotel is set also gave it that much more relevance to us. As if that wasn’t enough, Edward comes from the tiny village of Turville in Buckinghamshire which we know and love.
All in all a wonderful novel that shows off McEwan’s maturity as a writer and one which will have us meditating on the human condition and the opportunities we grasp and turn down and their effect on our entire lives.
This is how an entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.
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