Back in about 1988 a friend lent me a novel she had just finished reading. "You must read this", she said, "it's amazing". The book was The Child in Time and I had heard of neither the book nor its author before. My friend was right about the book being amazing. I still remember being very impressed by the writing. However, I was devastated by the premise of the novel: the effect on a father of the abduction of his three year old child - so devastated that I decided not to read any more of McEwan's work for fear of being devastated all over again.
Fast forward twenty years and a different friend gives me a pile of books as a gift. One of them is On Chesil Beach. I dutifully thank him, knowing all the while that I'll never read it, because it's written by Ian McEwan. The book stays on my bookshelf, though, because it's a gift and disposing of books given as gifts just seems wrong, even if I don't want to read them.
So now it's 2012 and the book has been sitting on the shelf for four years, along with a number of other books I've been given or bought and haven't read. I decide to participate in a challenge to read books owned but not read before the beginning of the year. I pick up On Chesil Beach. It's time to get over The Child in Time.
This novel tells a deceptively simple tale. It's 1962. Edward and Florence, an intelligent, well-educated young couple, have just married. They are spending the first night of their honeymoon in a hotel on the Dorset coast, overlooking Chesil Beach. Both virgins, they have quite different feelings as they move towards having sex for the first time. What happens on that night is interwoven with flashbacks of their lives and of what has led them to this point. What happens changes their lives forever.
I did not find either Edward or Florence to be particularly sympathetic characters. While what happens is both horrifying and funny, I didn't feel fully engaged with either of them as people. However, what I found utterly compelling about the novel is its illustration of how the seemingly small decisions people make and the words spoken or left unsaid can irrevocably change lives. I love McEwan's prose: elegant, clear, economical. I love his re-creation of England and Englishness at the beginning of a decade which was to transform the world. I also love that he managed to say and to imply so much in so few words.
I can confidently say that this novel has cured my McEwan phobia. I can finally get around to reading more of his work.