On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

“A story lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 176 pages.
Read from May 7, 2019 to May 8, 2019.

Confession; This is my first read by Ian McEwan and I think that this novel was a great introduction to his writing. I look forward to adding a few more of his books to my TBR pile.

This is a deeply emotional novel of the marriage of a young couple in the early 1960s. Florence comes from a well-to-do family and is a brilliant violinist who hopes of pursuing a musician as a career. She is recently married to Edward, a historian, of whom she met by chance at university. The two of them maintain this image of a perfect relationship and are looking forward to the next step in their lives after marriage. The novel opens with the two of them on their honeymoon right after their wedding. While the world is slowly starting to emerge into the swinging sixties, Florence and Edward, are still generally conservative, meaning that they have yet to become sexually intimate. Edward is beyond excited to consummate their marriage but is extremely worried about his performance and is wracked with anxiety. Florence, on the other hand, is terrified. She has no desire to be intimate with anyone and has been frigid throughout their whole relationship. However, Florence’s behaviour is not created out of modesty or disgust as Florence has a secret trauma she cannot bring herself to deal with. The story is a slow burner with the climax (no pun intended) during the moment the two of them attempt to consummate their marriage. The couple’s lack of communication and utter embarrassment about the whole ordeal leads to tragic consequences for both of them.

As a reader, you want desperately to shake Florence and Edward and get them to actually discuss their feelings instead of hiding behind this facade that each of them has created. Florence and Edward’s story addresses human vulnerabilities and the extremes that we go to in order to maintain an appearance and not show our deepest selves and secrets, especially when it comes to sex. As a reader, you connect deeply with this newlywed couple as many of us have experienced similar issues with vulnerability and communication and you really want the best for them. Both Florence and Edward had an idea of what they thought might make them happy but their inability to communicate their fears resulted in their demise and their whole lives changed within an instant. You can almost feel the deep regret oozing from the pages by the end of the novel.

This is a moving novel on a difficult topic that the author masterfully executed. I would recommend this novel for anyone interested in literary fiction or stories about intimate relationships.

The Return by Joseph Conrad

There aren’t many authors that can write in a second-language as successfully as Conrad has.

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 75 pages.
Read on April 6, 2018.

The the last time I read Conrad I was in high school devouring Heart of Darkness, a book I should really put on my reread list. I was sauntering through the library looking for a short read to help me catch up on my reading goal when I came across this short novella.  Unlike the adventures in the Congo in Heart of Darkness this story focuses on the deeply psychological nuances of marriage.

Did you know?
Conrad was born in Poland in 1857 and English was not his native tongue. He did not speak it fluently until his twenties. There aren’t many authors that can write in a second-language as successfully as Conrad has.

It was a normal day for Alvan Hervey and as he arrived home from work he was expecting to find his wife at home, instead, he left with a letter. The letter explains that wife has left home for another man. Alvan is beyond surprised with this shocking betrayal and he starts in a downward spiral and examination of his relationship in which it becomes clear that Alvan is more concerned with appearances and what sort of shame this event will bring him.  As his frantic thoughts race, his wife interestingly returns home. She has come to tell Alvan that she has made a mistake and that her affair was never consummated. Alvan’s wife is distant and her return appears reluctant and more out of a sense of duty than anything.

“You are deceiving yourself. You never loved me. You wanted a wife – some woman – any woman that would think, speak and behave in a certain way – in a way that you approved. You loved yourself.”

The story is emotionally and psychologically driven and anyone that has ever been in an intense argument with their partner or spouse can appreciate the terse environment that is created in this extremely personal setting. This book was published in 1897 and would have offered a rare insight into the very private lives of people at the time.

By the time the novel ends, Alvan’s revelations and jealousy reaches a new height,

“Can you stand it?” and glared as if insane. Her eyes blazed, too. She could not hear the appalling clamour of his thoughts. She suspected in him a sudden regret, a fresh fit of jealousy, a dishonest desire of evasion. She shouted back angrily–

“Yes!”

He was shaken where he stood as if by a struggle to break out of invisible bonds. She trembled from head to foot.

“Well, I can’t!” He flung both his arms out, as if to push her away, and strode from the room.”

Alvan can’t cope with his own failings and revelations that there is no going back from this point in his marriage. The wife, while she has returned, has expressed her deepest needs that she feels were not being met and pointed out some harmful and hurtful truths that Alvan is having trouble digesting.

The story shows both sides of the conflict equally, the reader all seeing insight into the couple’s troubles. By the end, the reader appreciates the choices made by either side of the conflict. If only we had that kind of insight into our relationship disputes, hey?

This book is a good quick read and introduction to Conrad if you have not read him before. If you are looking for another good reason to read this book, you can also read it online for free!

Stones by Timothy Findley

4/5 stars.
Hardcover, 221 pages.
Read from December 08 to 13, 2014.

There were a lot of mixed reviews on this collaboration of short stories, especially from Findley fans, but as this is my first collaboration by Findley, I stand impressed. Stones is a novel about relationships and how the effect our lives, especially some of the harder aspects in life like death and loss. One thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel was how Findley wrote a few different stories on the same characters. What one short story lacked, the next one would pick up on, whether that was a plot detail or elaborating on a part of the character’s personality or relationships.

This book has depth. I found myself thinking about the characters long after I put the book down. The book blurb on Goodreads mentions something about relationships and urban settings in the 1980’s but I don’t feel that any of these stories relate to a specific time frame but rather it’s more about the context of relationships and how they change our lives.

“Bragg and Minna” is the name of the first story in the book and of the two main characters. Their story is one of the most potent. The story opens with how Minna has died and Bragg is going to pick up her ashes. Bragg is bisexual, potentially a homosexual, but he loves Minna The two of them have their own quirks but that is what brought them together. The couple splits up shortly after they had children, one with severe mental disabilities. Bragg never wanted children but Minna came to a breaking point with the matter. After the birth of their mentally disabled daughter, Minna took the children and moved away Australia, which is where, years later, she dies . The story is filled with nostalgia and regret as Bragg makes the long trip over to claim her ashes.

The following story, “Gifts of Mercy”, detail how Minna and Bragg met. This story makes the last one even more tragic.

From here, each story revolves around a new tragic character. From a professor inspecting a mask, a man suffering from PTSD as a result of WWII and the effects it has on his family, to a disturbing but fascinating read about a pair of married psychiatrists whose patient’s dreams start to become a horrifying reality for one of them.

The stories are so different in tone. Some are tragic, some border on horror and others are more nostalgic but all of them revolve around the intrinsic relationships that we make in our daily lives.  Overall a great compilation of short stories that I’d recommend to just about anyone.