Why it is not safe for me to randomly pick up an Ian McEwan book.

My idea of hell is sitting in a loud, smoke-filled, crowded room, with the BIG LIGHT on (which should only ever be turned on if you’re dropped a pin or earring back), watching a ‘Saw’ film during the adverts of which there is an appeal for the mistreated orphans and donkeys of the world. And to make sure this hell is properly four dimensional, my mind will simultaneously dredge up every time I missed the wave of a friend therefore appearing to ignore them, accidentally passed on mis-information, or made an idiot of myself.

For a while now there’s a been a term for those of us who have exceptionally keen senses and emotions, the one-in-five that has to look away or will cry at scenes from Aleppo, but also if we experience or even hear about a random act of kindness, witness a beautiful view, work of art or piece of music. But it’s not a disability, the highly sensitive person (HSP) can be a wonderful public servant, healthcare worker, artist, or even successful business person, armed with the ability to tune effectively into the wants of others and the minutia of atmospheres and environments. It’s been suggested it’s like a spectrum, some may be highly sensitive to their own issues but less disturbed by those of others, or noise and time demands, while some may be expert at creating tasteful and calm surroundings but less exhausted by constant human company.

And this brings me to Ian McEwan. I swore after I read Atonement I’d never read another of his books again. There is no doubt he is a great writer, and if the frequent underlinings in my library copy of On Chesil Beach is anything to go by, I’m not the only one who thinks his prose is beautiful, but in a way he’s too good. His characters feel pain too realistically. While this book is not nearly as devastating as Atonement, I still let out a sad sigh when it was finished, closed the book and felt the need for a cup of tea and biscuit to cheer me up.

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It’s about Edward and Florence’s wedding night, and the awkwardness of two virgins. There are some funny lines, such as Florence’s distaste and fears of open-mouthed kissing.

If she was sick into his mouth, was one wild thought, their marriage would be instantly over and she would have to go home and explain herself to her parents.

Florence has some deep issues with physical contact, and Edward has some real performance fears. One line that made me laugh out loud was the description of his shirt over his erection, making it look like

…a draped public monument.

Ha! men. They wish.

However, as the story weaves back through the middle class but difficult childhood of both characters, Florence’s cold mother and disturbing, strong hints of sexual abuse by her father, and the sad story of how Edward’s mother became brain damaged, the warm moments are few and far between.

Although, after Edward, er, accidentally jumps the gun, and disgusts Florence causing her to physically run away at great speed, they do eventually discuss their issues, it’s not in a productive way. I would have been so much happier if they could have agreed to get help,  work through it, and not go their separate ways just yet. The book ends up with how their lives went on alone, and while it’s not utterly miserable, the failed marriage casts a shadow over both of them. I can cope with some sadness, I expect fiction to contain an element of contrasting tragedy, but I’d really like it if there was a reason for me to well up with a bit of happiness for at least one of the characters. This book was deservedly Booker short-listed, the writing is stunning, but from now on I will read the blurbs on any future Ian McEwans very carefully. As we like to add adjective to beaches in this country, such as Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Aberdeen Fun Beach, I hereby name it Chesil Awkwardly-Heartbreaking Beach.

 

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