On a trip to the local library with my mom this past week, I bought twenty-five used books (which I will make mention of here as I read them). You would think that was enough – but of course, it wasn’t. So I saw McEwan’s On Chesil Beach sitting on the “new” shelf, and I decided to pick it up. I knew it was short because on Kate’s Book Blog she had mentioned some discussion of whether the book was a novella or not. I figured that I could read a novella in two days. And I almost accomplished it. I had about forty pages to go and will finish up the book when I get back to our local library.
Having not finished it will not, however, stop me from talking about it a bit. Friends had been raving about McEwan for years. I had seen his name everywhere, even before Atonement starred Keira Knightly. But I had never read him. I started Amsterdam but never finished. So when I got invested in this book – partially because of the subject matter (a complicated wedding night) and partially because of McEwan’s brilliance at painting the complexities of the mind as if they are simple – I was a bit surprised.
Most of all, I was impressed by McEwan’s ability to paint the feminine mind. I could see myself in Florence – not completely, of course; I’ve been far more fortunate than she – and I didn’t even consider, until later, that a man had rendered that picture.
But it’s the lingering effect of his sentences – clear but convoluted – that I still ponder. What is it about his writing that makes him see utterly old-fashioned but inexplicably contemporary? To answer this question, I started reading other people’s reviews. Jonathan Lethem’s comments in The New York Times seem to capture it best: “McEwanâ€™s mode is synthesis, his signature the reconciliation of diametric modes â€” scalpel observation and civilized compassion â€” into a persuasive and relaxed whole. His style, too easily taken for complacent, is recuperative. His confidence in the authority of his chosen form is absolute, which is why he conveys such dazzling authority of his own. To paraphrase Paul Nelson, as Greil Marcus does in his book â€œThe Old Weird Americaâ€: the tests have been passed, and what weâ€™re seeing are the results.” There’s just something both brilliantly direct, nearly formal about On Chesil Beach while still maintaining the complexity, the self-awareness that we think of as post-modern (or post-post-modern, whatever “era” we’re in now).
So I recommend this book for all of the things a book should have – intriguing character, subtle but engrossing plot, and gorgeous language.