Another Booker review as part of the Mela. Bill (yes, Bill. See what all some "well intentioned laziness" on my part can do!) on Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach:
The billboards in London are announcing the film version of Atonement. As a person who really liked that book, I am very skeptical of a film version starring Keira Knightley, and by the director of last year's Pride and Prejudice, no less. What I would have no problems with, however, is with them adapting On Chesil Beach to the screen. It might even improve on the book, since it's hard to see how they could make it worse (famous last words).
Two days ago, I wouldn't have thought I would say this of a McEwan book. Even the books that are admittedly not his best, like The Innocent, for instance, are books I admire for his precise descriptions of mood, of characters. He can create an atmosphere that you know is fictional but are engrossed in nonetheless. With those expectations, this book comes across as even more of a disappointment than it would have been otherwise.
The story is about the honeymoon night of a young English couple, in the year 1962. Florence and Edward are trapped hopelessly in an old-fashioned conventionality, unaware of the approaching sexual revolution (nineteen-sixty-three, as Larkin tells us. I don't know much more, but this guy surely does). This is the first time either of them are going to have sex, and both carry a heavy baggage of anxieties and preoccupations. A lot of repressed emotions, things left unsaid, and endless fumbling later, the night will end in tragedy.
The plot of course is nothing to write home about, but McEwan can transform even the thinnest of plots and make it engrossing. This time he doesn't actually succeed, partly because the characters are extremely unconvincing caricatures. Florence comes from an upper class family, with an Oxford philosophy professor for her mother and a successful businessman for her father. She herself plays violin in a classical music quintet. (what else!) And Edward is from solid middle-class background, with all his friends gone to trade schools. He is busy trying to hide his country background at University by pretending not to know the names of trees. Not satisfied with this rich girl poor boy dynamic, we then get chaste girl horny boy also. Florence has once before run away screaming when Edward placed her hand on his groin. Edward cannot stop longing for sex, in the "long lazy afternoons, before going to sleep, after waking up" before his wedding.
McEwan seems to set out to explore the consequences of repression and decorum, in a polite English world. The mood is set by the very first sentence: They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. That sentence pretty much sums up the book. My problem with the book is that he never delivers on the promise of the sentence that follows: But it is never easy. Embarrassment is not unknown during a first-time encounter with sex even in our enlightened times, and surprising though it may seem, people actually did have sex before the sexual revolution (in industrial quantities too!). Exploring that era needs something more than a "Oh, they couldn't talk about it".