Review: On Chesil Beach & The Casual Vacancy

If one concurs with Leonardo da Vinci that ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’, then Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach (2007) is a treat. It was an absolute steal in a Pinner charity shop, and I devoured and digested it within a weekend. Set amidst the social and cultural changes of the early 1960s, the story pivots around the wedding night of newlyweds Edward and Florence. An omniscient narrator shifts between each of their thoughts as they ponder the momentous occasion before them, the elephant in the room: the consummation of their marriage.

Edward is impatient with lust. Florence cannot bear the thought of what she must submit to. Edward misreads his wife’s reluctance. Florence self-pityingly tries to accede out of love for her husband. The awkwardness, which McEwan stretches out like a torture rack to the reader, erupts disastrously. The marriage must come to an end. The events of the night are over in a heartbeat. The implications, the consequences, are not.

chesilFor all the delicacy of the topic, which McEwan dissects with microscopic detail, his disarmingly elegant prose averts the reader from any embarrassment. The novella presents quite a serious psycho-sexual and sociological study of its characters, Edward and Florence. To build on the gravity of the climactic event, McEwan interweaves his narration with the swiftly-told biographies of his characters: their families, their upbringing, how they met, how they arrived at this crucial point in time. After Edward’s intolerant reaction to the failure of their consummation, however, McEwan just as swiftly condenses the facts of a life hereafter unfulfilled. Edward silently rues his mistake in letting Florence depart in shame; it’s the subtly painful tragedy of an ordinary life wasted, all stemming from a single moment on chesil beach.

Brutus in Julius Caesar says it best:

   There is a tide in the affairs of men,
   Which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune;
   Omitted, all the voyage of their life
   Is bound in shallows and miseries.

It’s a recurring focus in literature – and perhaps a sentimental fact of life – that individuals will eternally regret a life not lived, an action not taken, a moment not seized. The idea itself forms the basis of McEwan’s previous work, Atonement, and it hits us hard again in On Chesil Beach. ‘This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing’, writes McEwan. His philosophical insight, as he contemplates the significance of Edward’s mistake, is unsettling and poignant. By reducing his protagonist’s life to the result of one key choice, Chesil Beach comes to symbolise that same tide running through all our lives, taking us either to those great currents of fortune or the shallows of misery. Refined in its style and hard-hitting in its reality, this is a finely-executed tale. *****

If ever there was an author to challenge Da Vinci’s sentiment with an equally sophisticated work of marked complexity, then, it would be J. K. Rowling. Just how does she do it? Her first novel since the enormous success of Harry Potter could not be a further departure from the enchanting, moral world of Hogwarts, but no less captivating. In the provincial town of Pagford, there are no cosy Quidditch matches, no pet owls and no butter-beer drinking wizards. There’s drug addition, teenage rape and domestic abuse, all bursting at the seams of a tense social hierarchy. Indeed, The Casual Vacancy (2012) is serious business.

casualvacancyThe plot kicks into action with the untimely death of local councillor Barry Fairbrother, apparently the only decent and popular resident of Pagford. The event is a catalyst for Rowling’s intricate exploration of the tragedies, heartaches and corruptions festering at the heart of a tight-knit community. As we discover, Fairbrother’s death has left a strangely large hole in the hearts and lives of the novel’s characters – and also an empty seat, a ‘casual vacancy’, on the parish council. At the pinnacle of Pagford’s pecking order, the Mollisons, who monopolise the village with their conservative values, finally relish the chance to cut the local council estate out of Pagord’s district. But standing right in the firing line, the Weedons, who epitomise the social depravity that Barry fought hard to overcome in his lifetime, drastically suffer the loss of their leading light.

As such, although The Casual Vacancy has been labelled a social critique of 21st century society, to me it’s more a detailed study of how a community operates. Whether or not Rowling consciously set out to write a modern-day Middlemarch, the novel is a very adequate rendering of George Eliot’s realist achievements (and to any well-seasoned Victorian readers, there are plenty of allusions to this effect). It’s an intimate and panoramic observation of how a cross-section of society interweaves and interacts; Rowling strives to pull apart the fabric of contemporary life, and her thick magnifying glass hovers above every dark thread.

The story is not ground-breaking, but as always with Rowling, it’s the story-telling itself that is the real triumph. Within a few pages, I hit that ‘can’t-put-it-down’ sensation I hadn’t experienced since childhood with Harry Potter. Indeed, the characters are constructed by a pen that clearly understands people, if perhaps all too well – most of them descend from being merely fallible to thoroughly loathsome, making Rowling’s grip over the reader even more commendable. Amidst the whirl of self-destruction and human nature depicted at its worst, there come some small glimpses of hope in the most unexpected of places, giving the novel a more complex, naturally-rounded conclusion.

Whether magical fantasy or gritty realism, Rowling again proves herself superb at luring the reader into her grand-scale fictional worlds. It bewilders me that so many Amazon reviewers should berate the novel for not being enough ‘like Harry Potter‘. The Casual Vacancy actually enhanced my appreciation of the Potter series – as I touched upon, the Victorian themes and Dickensian undertones suddenly became so obvious in the earlier works as well, and made for an interesting reassessment of Rowling’s literature as a whole. Though the story may be a bleaker one, it’s written with the finesse, the ambitious pen and the imaginative power that will continue to be celebrated of its unstoppable author. A classic-to-be – if it isn’t one already. ****

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