I have recently read The Children Act by Ian McEwan for book group and this inspired me to then immediately re-read On Chesil Beach. I have read quite a lot of Ian McEwan novels over the last 10 years, most are excellent (notably The Innocent, Enduring Love, and Atonement), some not so much (The Comfort of Strangers), so I was really looking forward to reading The Children Act. McEwan’s books can be split into two main categories, novels set in the modern day, and those set in the earlier part of the 20th Century. I believe the way in which he approaches these different era’s in his writing is markedly different. The ‘modern’ novels are often extremely clinical in the approach to description and seemingly researched to the nth degree. They often deal with characters who are at the top of their profession whether it’s a neurosurgeon, professor, or in the case of The Children Act a high court judge. McEwan’s other novels are less clinical; they are less emotionally detached from the characters. Whilst these novels are researched brilliantly they are slightly more ambiguous in their content; this allows the reader to place pieces of the novel together to form a representation of the world they are an inhabitant of.
The Children Act follows the life of High Court Judge, Fiona Maye, as she deals with everyday cases involving families and children. After a particularly hard case several weeks previous to the books events, involving congenital twins, she is faced with another life or death case whilst dealing with her personal life falling apart. A young man of just seventeen is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion based on religious grounds – Fiona must decide if the hospital should take unconsented action on the basis that the patient is still legally a child. This is the very basic setup of the novel, but what we get from the author is so much more. Detailed descriptions of both cases plus others made this book, for me, extremely interesting – it is absolutely clear that McEwan has intensely researched similar cases and the novel really comes to life as the reader is placed into the protagonists mind and how she came to the decisions she does. This meticulous research and description is at the basis of this novel and reminded me heavily of Saturday by the same author. Every thought, every interpretation, every nuance picked up on the courtroom is detailed – and though The Children Act is a fairly slim novel there is a lot packed in.
Although I very much enjoyed The Children Act it is flawed; the case itself and the build up to a verdict is deftly written placing the reader in genuine suspense – the decision taken is by no means a done deal. What I did find was the aftermath and final stage of the book to be not as strong on an emotional level after the verdict. The novel, which gallops to start with, takes on a slower pace (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but seemed wrong for this book to me. The main character’s behaviour shifted a little which didn’t quite ring true. On the whole I would still recommend this novel – it is still quite brave and brings up some interesting moral dilemmas.
If you’ve not read On Chesil Beach then you really, really should. On Chesil Beach is set in 1962 and details the honeymoon evening of a young newlywed couple interspersed with flashbacks to their lives before. It is a very slim novel (166 pages) and is very economical with what it gives to the reader – it is beautifully written and heart breaking to read. The young couple are caught up completely in each other’s expectations, especially when it comes to the consummation of their relationship. Both are virgins bringing different neuroses to what is expected of them on this most fabled night. From one a great willingness to care for and be tender with the person they love most dearly; the other is scared.
On Chesil Beach is a wonderful book in my opinion, it describes the two main characters in the story nicely and you believe in them and the relationship they have. Their love for each other pours from the pages and McEwan describes their hope and fears brilliantly. As the reader progresses through the book, the layered characters are carefully peeled to reveal more; by the end, the couple are laid bare for the reader to have a full understanding of them and how they feel. This is coupled with the descriptive setting of their lives culminating in a stark, emotional scene on the beach itself.
I cannot recommend On Chesil Beach enough – it is wonderfully written and with an economy that only few writers can achieve. For me, no sentence seems superfluous; every word is crafted carefully to provide a thought provoking novel that is powerful and stays with the reader long after finishing it. Love holds this novel together, love is this novels main message – love also has an overwhelming impact on the couple’s lives and relationship.
If you have read either The Children Act or On Chesil Beach you may like:
- The Innocent by Ian McEwan
- If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by John McGregor
- Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift