Archive for July, 2014
Ian McEwan has a way with words most other writers can only imagine having. He has an almost Joycian level of complexity with his style, but it seems somewhat more accessible. On Chesil Beach is a novella full of this level of writing. It’s very impressive to read.
But does that make it worth reading?
The novella follows the two lives of a couple of newlyweds. The narrative is primarily set on the evening of their wedding. Edward Mayhew is a ‘sixties businessman, and Florence Ponting is a nationally recognised violinist. There is disparity between the two sides of the relationship. Florence is asexual, Edward isn’t. Progress is slow through the book as about three-quarters is given over to just the night of their wedding and flashbacks about how and where they met and segments regarding the development of their relationship. The remaining quarter rushed through most of the rest of Edward’s life. It reminded me of a cycling sprint race where they look over their shoulders at each other for most of the duration of the race then go like hell for the last forty seconds. However this section seems to be more of an epilogue than an end, and as such, it works quite well and leaves you with something to think about after you’ve finished.
One issue I had was the characters as neither Edward nor Florence come across as particularly likeable. Where this isn’t necessarily an issue in a lot of fiction, I find in here it becomes one because of how close you are to the characters. Almost every action, inaction and thought they display as their wedding night is described. You’re inseparable from their being. Again, it’s clever, but it’s not a place I as a reader felt comfortable in. The novella did make me feel uncomfortable in places. The detail is extremely graphic and each emotional response bears a lot of weight. But I didn’t enjoy reading it in the same way I have enjoyed other books. Perhaps it’s too real; the slow motion aspect of the novel leaves nothing to your imagination. It lays every detail on the bed and asks you what you think about it. Or perhaps I was simply frustrated with the two characters. Florence seems very self-obsessed. She talks about how the thought of sex with her husband revolts her. Edward is completely oblivious and naïve to any possible other way of thinking as well. It begs the question of why the couple thought they’d be good for each other at all.
It’s worth remembering that this novella is set in 1960’s southern England, it’s a different world to where we are now, post war, rationing may even have been in effect in some parts of the country. Edward fits into the Angry Young Man persona. He’s been denied fighting in the war due to the fact he was born during it and his tension is released in the form of arousal. The characters are oil and water and both have flaws which mean you cannot really side with either. It’s an interesting novella and the writing is shocking, beautiful and very well thought out. I couldn’t enjoy the book. But I could definitely appreciate the author’s skill in writing it.
There can be no doubt that The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel, is an interesting an engaging read. But whether or not I actually like the book is a different matter. The novel, narrated by the rather prim Mrs Grace Winter, is her memories and recollections of the sinking of The Empress Alexandra, a transatlantic cruise ship, and her time floating aboard an undersized lifeboat with thirty-eight other people, a couple of years after the sinking of the Titanic.
As far as plot goes, there isn’t a huge amount of it, which is understandable due to the nature of the novel’s setting. The ship sinks; Mrs Winter finds herself in a lifeboat; they are eventually rescued, and then there is a court case surrounding some of the events which occurred on the boat. As such the novel really needs to be outstanding on atmosphere and character development. The former it excels at until they are rescued. The three quarters of the novel set on the boat are a harrowing recount of a group’s determination for survival amidst a seemingly hopeless backdrop of waves, sharing out knife caught fish, ship’s biscuits and water for the progressively decreasing figure of thirty-nine and the constant dissension amongst the passengers.
The latter on the other hand is severely lacking. Because the novel is written in first person and past tense there is a significant distance between the reader and the situation. It’s beautifully described but you cannot feel anything for the character who you are essentially watching through the particularly cold and disclosing eyes of Mrs Winter. There is very little engagement with the other characters on the boat and twinned with the truth that none of them, least of all the narrator, are distinctly likable; you can’t really feel for them. They end up just as objects. There is no sense of remorse for the dead, nor relief for the living. It makes the concept feel deflated. The other issue is that there are simply too many people on the boat to align with. Thirty-nine people are said to be on the boat. But you quickly forget those other than the key characters of Mrs Winter, Mr Hardie; the only seaman on board, the officious Mrs Grant and her dogsbody Hannah and the wet and annoying Mary Ann. I am certain that at least half of the characters on the boat are unaccounted for even at the end of the novel, so how can you care that they lived or died?
The novel seems to be trying to make a statement, but it doesn’t seem to know which statement to make. It extensively addresses feminism and suffrage, but as it appears to be leaning towards that it veers off into religion. I couldn’t even call it a novel about survival or trauma. It’s a novel about a selection of cardboard cut-out stereotypes who find themselves in an extreme situation. But it’s the situation which wins the awards, not the characters. To be honest, the boat left bobbing in the ocean at the end as the survivors departed on a fishing boat was the only character I truly missed. If the first three quarters existed without the final one and if the novel had been in third person then perhaps it could have been better. Unfortunately it had a lot of shortcomings. It’s real saving grace is the description and the tension Rogan creates. I feel it’s a divider of opinions and you can only really know what yours is after reading it.
I’m not one to explain poems that much, but just for a small amount of context. I studied at Aberystwyth University and on several occasions found myself travelling between Aber and my home town. Just East of Aberystwyth there is a huge and impressive wind farm which we almost always passed on the way. It’s always been in the back of my mind, and I do find they have a certain romance to them.
The Wind Farm
Up on Rheidol
the brush grass, rough, windswept,
mingles with the gorse
which grew thick in the summer.
The October chill drains
Its colour. Green becomes buff.
The hillside is ragged,
Ruled by sheep.
There are no crops.
For the dull drone.
White pillars, each pristine,
Set with a propeller,
three blades, equally spaced.
The rotation is slow
at first, but speeds up
as a gust blows
in from the sea.
They stand tall like watchers
looking out over the hill
and the road.
and the irritable clouds.
There they stand. Innocently
battling the Westerlies.
There they stand and there
they will stand.