I was expecting, I suppose, something along the lines of A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow, where a young couple face the adult world of intimacy together. Instead there was the wedding night, a mundane life story for both of them (which was as interesting as anyone ordinary's life story but important for comparison), then the rest of the wedding night and its consequences. This is concluded by a shoot forward of forty years.
McEwan has a writing style that I enjoy, that doesn't make me cringe, and it is this that carried me through this strange little book. The topic could have been farcical or ridiculous, but it wasn't. The story's conclusion seems irrelevant, as it actually is: it is the narrative and sheer joy of his writing that keeps the momentum. He has a way of expressing the characters' thinking, their train of thought that goes beyond obvious without being stilted or too contrived. There were parts that I certainly recognised in myself and I have not read anywhere else.
The story expresses the attitudes, ignorance and lack of communication typical of people in early 1960s Britain. The wedding night is portrayed with tense awkwardness as they go through the formalities of their first evening meal together knowing what is expected of them afterwards. The anxiety, for different reasons, is poignantly drawn is a skilful way.
The fear and apprehension in the couple is symbolic of the times as the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan talks on the radio about the arms race during the Cold War. The parallel is drawn between the personal and those of the social norms: you just don't talk about intimacy whether it's physical, political or otherwise. They never cross over. There is the issue of social class where both admire aspects of the different traits while resenting them too: '...he wanted to shake her awake, or slap her out of her straight-backed music-stand poise, her North Oxford proprieties.' The sex act - with all the anticipation, potential, discovery and ultimately revulsion and disappointment - is a metaphor for social class.
A worthy shortlisted novella for the Booker prize in 2007 and Chesil Beach typifies the simplicity and intensity of all Ian McEwan's work.
Published by Vintage Digital on 20 January 2010.
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