The first Ian McEwan novel I read, Atonement, is one of my favorite books. I picked up several more of McEwan’s novels the last time I was in the bookstore.
I just finished the first of the books I chose, On Chesil Beach. It was published in 2007, and is just 203 pages. Its length actually surprised me because it read very much like a short story–its primary events concerned only one night. There are flashbacks throughout the story, and the end moves us quickly to the rest of the characters’ lives, but it is primarily about the events–or non-events–of the wedding night of two virgins, Edward and Florence, and a miscommunication that effects the rest of their lives.
This novel is literary fiction defined–very little plot movement, extreme character development. McEwan is a master. He brilliantly depicts the psyche of two emotionally underdeveloped people, and sublty weaves conflict around what is not said, what is not done, and what is misunderstood.
Because very few physical events transpire, I can’t summarize the plot any more than I have. I will say that McEwan’s understanding and craft are not to be matched. His characters are fully realized and he is in full control of them. Every word, thought, and action is deliberate and well placed.
McEwan holds nothing back. This is 90% good, and 10% “he did not just write that.” I am not squeamish, prudish, or easily shocked, but I still wanted to turn away from certain scenes in the novel. It was too intimate. There was too much detail. As a writer, I trust my reader to read between the lines and make inferences. If I write that a character is shot, I don’t describe the point of bodily entry down to the smell.
I realize that this is my problem. McEwan wanted the reader to be as uncomfortable as the characters in the story.
Though I can’t recommend this book far and wide–I do recommend it to writers. It is perfectly drawn and executed, unfolds at the perfect pace, and represents characterization at its best.