In his Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam, McEwan not only successfully gets inside the mind-sets of a composer and the editor of a national newspaper, as with Enduring Love and Saturday. He also shows how a person’s unwavering focus upon the success of the professional lives, their ambition, can lead oneself to cross moral boundaries, with ruinous consequences.
Talking of ruinous consequences, On Chesil Beach is a prime example of Ian McEwan’s understanding of relationships, especially in the department of love and romance – and, for that matter, society’s influence on it. As Tim Adams, in his Guardian review of the book in 2007 writes:
‘Their love story and their tragedy grows out of McEwan's opening sentence, which contains within its careful confines almost everything you need to know about what follows: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”’
McEwan sets his tragedy in 1962, a year or so before the sexual revolution, when sex no longer became a taboo subject to speak about openly. Of course, many historians disagree that it was only after the sexual revolution of the sixties that people started to talk about sex. Indeed, though the Victorians are often thought of as having been highly sexually repressed, behind closed doors things were often very different. But the key phrase in that sentence is “behind closed doors”. People did not discuss sex and so people also did not talk about the problem of sexual desire.
Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting have just gotten married and are about to spend their first night together in a place beside Chesil Beach in Dorset. However, despite seemingly being in love, they each bring their own hidden baggage to the table with them. We find out that whilst Edward has been covering up a mountain of sexual desire, Florence, on the other hand, dreads the idea of physical intimacy with any man. Their interests in relation to sex are completely opposed to one another. And due to the fact that talking about sex is taboo, a night which they could have recovered from turns into a heart-shattering tragedy.
Despite all of Ian McEwan’s apparent talent, I’ve found that many people I know absolutely loath his work with a passion. This is perhaps because they first encountered Ian McEwan whilst doing an English Literature A-Level, reading my favourite novel of his that I’ve read, Enduring Love –and so studying it was a requirement rather than a recreational choice as was the case for me. This very often takes at least some of the fun out of reading a novel, so I suppose it is understandable. Such people also claim that Ian McEwan has a smugness to him which works its way into his prose.
However, I politely disagree. I think that whilst McEwan does sometimes try to be a bit clever in his writing, I don’t think that should put off new-comers from reading his brilliant novels and other literary works. He is rightly considered one of the best writers of his generation and if you haven’t picked up one of his books yet, I strongly recommend you do so.
Image: Flaming Ferrari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons