Saving Grace:

Kevin Saving on
Ian McEwan's 
On Chesil Beach
(Vintage, 2007)
 

If 'sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three/ which was rather late for me' (as Philip Larkin, with great personal disingenuousness, wrote in 1967) then it will arrive far too late, also, for the two, newly-wed protagonists of this Ian McEwan novella, set one year earlier.
  Edward and Florence Mayhew, both quietly repressed individuals, spend a disasterous wedding-night at a Dorset hotel and that - so far as the action goes - is that. McEwan sits, god-like, on high, pulling his writerly strings above these two totally fictitious characters and yet somehow manages to hint at emotional truths in a way which poetry used to, but latterly seldom does.
  It says a good deal about contemporary culture that we appear to be so fascinated by (and prepared to invest so much time and money upon) the entirely fictive. The role of The Story-Teller has a long historical pedigree but can seldom previously have enjoyed the scale of social acceptability, approval, even apotheosis, that it does at present. This may not suit everyone. When McEwan writes (for instance) "Edward took his rickety childhood bike from the shed" one small part of this reviewer is tempted to shout in reply". Oh no he didn't!" And when the Mayhew's bedroom catastrophe - both "climatic" and fumbling - is evoked with such near-forensic candour, it is difficult to refrain from speculations regarding the provenance and motivation behind disclosures of such apparent authenticity. And yet if modern readership requires an omniscient narrative presence (perhaps now the only example of its kind we can aspire to) then it's hard to imagine one which disposes of its humanoid materials more judiciously, or records their separate downfalls more elegantly, than McEwan does here. He manages, skillfully, to enlist our sympathies for both Edward and Florence, each of whom falls victim to integral weaknesses - not 'faults' exactly - in much the same, inexorable way as the mythic heroes of Greek tragedy used to do.
  One method of determining a book's real merit (and one which I have not seen previously quoted) is by using what I am about to christen 'The Oxfam Criterion'. This is definable by the length of time it takes, post-publication, for the opus of a best-selling author to be found gracing the shelves of the charity shops -and at a greatly reduced price. The Oxfam Criterion works on the premise that whilst many people might be conned into buying a book by dint of its writer's literary reputation (or through slick marketing) few will retain for long an inferior volume -especially a paperback- in the knowledge that that are unlikely ever to re-read, or even finish, it. Using this scarsely robust index, On Chesil Beach rates highly. I have been, thus far, unable to locate an edition for sale outside of the portals of a reputable booksellers; nor is it reservable for months yet at my local library.
  Strangely, perhaps paradoxically, we seem to have arrived at a time when truth and insight are more likely to be found between the covers of a (decent) novella than those of a (probably bogus) poetry collection. Personally, and having now read all three synchronous publications, I'd rather spend time On Chesil Beach than in a Drowned Book or ...Coming To Dover! McEwan, whose writing, here, espouses the old-fashioned virtue of economy (and whose method eshews posturing) encourages us to BELIEVE - even in the knowledge of his artful, formulaic deceit.

Kevin Saving © 2008