Saturday 1 January 2011

What a difference a decade makes

Friends, Happy New Year! I hope 2011 is all love, happiness, great books, and delicious pie for you - and for me. My new year is already looking good, as I danced into the wee hours and then made delicious banana cream pancakes for brunch. Feeling very hopeful about the Year of the Rabbit!

Things were already looking promising, though, as the last book I read in 2010 was absolutely stellar - Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. And the thing is, I might so easily have never given this book a chance; indeed, I really don't know what inspired me to drop a decade-old prejudice against the man. You see, approximately 10 years ago, while I was in South Korea making lots of money and having nothing to spend it on except books (of which I bought many, many, many), I read McEwan's Amsterdam - and thought it was a huge pile of shit. I straight up loathed that book, although I can't remember why now.

In spite of this festering literary resentment, I somehow managed to pick up On Chesil Beach AND actually read it AND now it's one of my favourite books in recent memory! The writing is so gorgeous, it's unreal. McEwan's delicate and subtle insights into his characters' fears, desires, motivations, and pasts are both humbling and invigorating. There is not one wasted or imperfectly placed word here.

The novel takes place during the wedding night of young English couple Florence and Edward. It's 1962, they are very young, and they are absolutely unable to speak honestly with each other about anything at all. Every topic of importance is a no fly zone for them, buried in personal, cultural, and historical anxieties and misapprehensions. Through these layers, they flounder painfully in their attempts to consummate their marriage both physically and emotionally. And it seems so sweetly possible, in the beginning:
And they had so many plans, giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future, as richly tangled as the summer flora on the Dorset coast, and as beautiful. Where and how they would live, who their close friends would be, his job with her father's firm, her musical career and what to do with the money her father had given her, and how they would not be like other people, at least, not inwardly. This was still the era - it would end later in that famous decade - when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure. Almost strangers, they stood, strangely together, on a new pinnacle of existence, gleeful that their new status promised to promote them out of their endless youth... (pp. 5-6)
They soon discover, however, that nothing can possibly be this simple, and as the night of their honeymoon wears on, they begin for the first time to understand how mired in their various histories they really are, and how impossible that makes a true meeting for them.

I read this novel in one sitting. I really couldn't look away from McEwan's excruciating and gorgeous discovery of Florence's and Edward's personalities, and their newborn marriage together. It reminded me that good writing is my primary concern with literature - that nothing, next to nothing, or nothing that interests me can be happening plot-wise as long as the writing takes my breath away. And that doesn't happen very damned often, so you can be sure that I'll be reading more McEwan this year.


Heidenkind said...

So are you going to try to reread Amsterdam now? :)

Teresa said...

I'm so glad you gave McEwan another chance! I adored this book--McEwan captured the hope so beautifully, and the realization of the barriers between them was so heart-breaking.

I'm planning to read Amsterdam this year at the behest of my blogging partner, who loved it. I wonder if I'll end up loving or loathing it. (The fact that Jenny loved it is a good sign.)

J.G. said...

How exciting! Discovering a new author is great, but discovering you don't loathe old so-and-so is even better. What an auspicious omen for 2011.

Suzanne Yester said...

Great review! I was given this as a gift a while back, took a brief look, it didn't grab me right away, and I put it down. I think after reading your review I'll pick it up again.

Funny how a prejudice of awful writing in one book, will drive us away from all novels of a particular writer. Usually there is a reason - but I'm glad that you gave McEwan another chance and found a winner.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: Definitely NOT. Life is short.

Teresa: I'm glad too. I think Atonement will be my next foray into his works.

J.G.: I thought it was a good omen too, and then I read The Embroidered Couch (review coming soon). Ah well!

Suzanne: I'll be interested to hear what you think of it. :)

Bellezza said...

Strangely enough for me, as it is not a regular habit of mine, I listened to On Chesil Beach being read on a CD. The author read it himself, I believe, and it was indeed masterful. The writing. The phrasing. All of it. I read Saturday, and I read Atonement. I haven't read Amsterdam, but I can bet if you didn't like it I probably won't either.

Anonymous said...

Glad you loved it, philly (may I call you that?) I think it's a great novel too, but then I am a bit of a McEwan fan. The only one of his that I've read (and I've read 5 or 6) is Amsterdam so I think you may have given yourself a bumsteer by starting with it. Try Enduring love or Atonement next, if you are inclined to give him another go.

Bookphilia said...

Bellezza: You give me too much power! Also, it was over 10 years ago - my tastes have changed significantly.

whisperinggums: I suppose you can call me Philly, but only because I do love the city of brotherly love.