On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

mcewan_on.jpgWhile traveling in London last month, one of my ambitions was to visit the Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court bookshops and bring home some literary souvenirs of our visit. Cecil Court has a small, but very impressive (and expensive) set of antiquarian bookshops. Unfortunately, like so many book-related nostalgias here and abroad, Charing Cross Road itself has apparently lost much of its magic. There were only a few independent bookshops left, and those tended to be super-specialized in fields outside my interest. The big hitters are still there, however, including Blackwell's and Foyle's, and the latter proved to be the one place I found a book worth bringing home: a signed copy of Ian McEwan's latest, On Chesil Beach.

This slim novel/novella is quintessential McEwan, with a slow focus on physical and atmospheric details that evoke the psychological story McEwan is really telling, that of the abbreviated young love of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting. As demonstrated in Enduring Love and Black Dogs (but not, unfortunately, in Amsterdam), McEwan is at his best when he leaves intricate plotting to the side and goes in the for slow motion closeups.

This simple story of love undone and words unsaid works because the ambition is simple: show two sides of a relationship that rested half on love and half on deception and misunderstanding, in a time (the early 1960s) before emotions were worn on the sleeve and sex was freely discussed. McEwan captures the awkwardness, the anxiety, and the anticipation with skill, and conveys potentially graphic sexuality with the same matter of fact tone he has brought to death and dismemberment in the past.

If there is a fault to the book, it comes in the latter pages when the equality of the perspective is dropped and Edward's retrospective becomes the focus. Edward's view of the how and why are left unchallenged by any reply by Florence. Not a fatal flaw by any means, but a curious mistep in an otherwise finely balanced short novel.

Recommended for all readers of modern fiction, essential for McEwan fans.