Sunday, June 17, 2007

Let's Talk About Sex

My review of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach in the Star today.
One might think that Ian McEwan is treading on slightly dangerous ground in his new novella, On Chesil Beach, having chosen for himself a scenario which, for British readers (at least), will bring to mind smutty seaside postcards and sniggered blue jokes: a young couple on honeymoon find themselves unable to consummate their marriage. Instead, he presents us with a heartbreaking tale of misunderstanding and lost love.

It’s the early 1960’s, a few years before the so-called “sexual revolution” and the advent of The Pill and the accompanying shift in moral attitudes. Girls are still expected to “keep themselves” for a future husband and nice girls don’t “go all the way”. Edward and Florence are pretty typical of their time: they come to their wedding night with no sexual experience.

Both are anticipating the now officially sanctioned act of sexual intercourse with trepidation. Edward worries about how the act might be achieved “without absurdity or disappointment” and is afraid of (as he quaintly puts it) “arriving too soon” while Florence has “a visceral dread” of sex which she sees as a physical violation.

To make matters worse, she has been further put off by a sex manual she has read in lieu of being able to have an intimate conversation with the women in her life. Despite its “cheery tones and exclamation marks and numbered illustrations” the book is written in a formal sexual vocabulary that almost makes her gag in places. She though realises that she has signed all rights in the gloomy sacristy after the wedding ceremony and prepares resignedly to meet her fate.

McEwan fills in the story of the couple’s path to the altar in flashbacks, and draws each as a convincing individual. Florence is a talented violinist who dreams of performing with her string quartet at the hallowed Wigmore Hall. Edward is studying history at University College and wants to write biographies. Both are idealists who actively support CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and, in fact, meet when he encounters her handing out leaflets in Oxford. The later tragedy is compounded by the fact that this is a couple already very much in love. They are physically and intellectually well-matched, and they have already negotiated many of the practical difficulties which might have separated them.

But neither has yet learned how to break free of cloying convention. Neither have an appetite for the heavy roast beef dinner they are served in their room but struggle to finish it because it seems the polite thing to do. They are at liberty to kick off their shoes and run down to the beach but actually don’t because, “for now, the times held them ? a thousand unacknowledged rules still applied.” And so it is with sex.

Marked by clumsiness, down-right ignorance and an inability to communicate with each other about their feelings, their fumbling attempts at intercourse are indeed every bit as disastrous as both feared. McEwan doesn’t flinch from detail (a single kiss is given a page and a half, for example) but the writing is never prurient. Indeed, there really isn’t a word out of place in this beautifully crafted story.

In a moment of disgust and blind panic, Florence rushes out of the room. In their angry confrontation, injured pride stands in the way of any real communication and the conversation has life long repercussions for both.

How ironic it is that in the larger scheme of things their lives are destroyed – not by an atom bomb (as both feared) or by the whims of a dictator (of the sort that Edward is researching) but because the society of the time did not make discussion of intimate matters possible.

The book makes a convincing plea for effective sex education that deserves to be heard in the Malaysia of the early 21st century.

There's also a very nice review by J.N.C. Tay (Janet trying to be a bit incognito?) of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, Half A Yellow Sun.

In the print version of the paper there are vouchers to clip that will give you a very good discount on the books. (25% off the McEwan at Kinokuniya and 20% off Adichie's book at MPH).

(Photo stolen from the Age.)

12 comments:

Amir said...

Is this piece in The New Yorker an edited extract?

Anonymous said...

No - it is not an edited extract. On Chesil Beach the novella started life as a short story in The New Yorker which McEwan later expanded into a novella.

Anonymous said...

Great reviews, Sharon and Janet!

bibliobibuli said...

the new yorker doesn't label its fiction short story or extract.

this from an article about the use of excerpts in the new york times:

“Everyone thinks it’s lovely to have an excerpt there,” said Ms. Dahl of International Creative Management, but since there’s no special designation in the magazine, “it’s hard for readers to know it’s from an upcoming book.”

this piece stands alone very nicely but is an excerpt (same exactly as the opening pages of the novella)

if it were a short story i think mcewan would have supplied us with climax (or in the case of this poor couple, the lack of! haha) and the devastating ending

i feel about the novella as a whole that it is an extended short story with all the back story packed into the middle to pad it to an adequate length

Janet said...

Haha, thanks Sharon. I laughed out loud when I saw what you wrote about being incognito. ;) Also I didn't realise my review had the MPH voucher thing - haven't seen the print edition of the paper yet.

bibliobibuli said...

so nice to see you reviewing janet! glad too that there is this push now to get recent and relevant books reviewed.

Anonymous said...

Always wondered about it... if you get married you're expected (in fact pressured) to have sex with your spouse. To not have sex is.. abnomal, strange and weird. And yet before you get married the expectation is completely opposite.

bibliobibuli said...

anon - and suddenly you're supposed to be enough of an expert even if you were both virgins before! (as many are still in malaysia when they marry)

Chet said...

I got the print edition for the voucher and went and bought my copy of Yellow Sun from MPH at The Curve. Popular Ikano didn't have it. Also three other books ... always the case - walk into bookstore to buy one or two titles and walk out with more than those titles.

Amir said...

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

- Philip Larkin (born 1922).

bibliobibuli said...

chet - so why do you think they give those vouchers huh? they know that when we walk in for one book we are suckers for all thsoe other orphans on the shelf!

Chet said...

>> so why do you think they give those vouchers huh?

I do it even without the aid of vouchers.

After I finish The Secret History, I will start on Half a Yellow Sun.

*ignoring the pitiful looks of the "orphans" on my TBR stacks*