Which is the most terrifying novel ever

Worst wedding night ever

Ian McEwan's new novel "On the Beach"

By C├ęcile Leupolt

Discussed books / references

After his successful novels "Amsterdam" (1998), "Atonement" (2001) and "Saturday" (2005), Ian McEwan's tenth novel, "Am Strand", was published in April 2007. Like many of his texts, this is only 200 pages long and can easily be read in a few hours. McEwan's preference for the short novel form (novella) possibly derives from his debut as a short story writer ("First Love - Last Rites", 1975; "Between the Linen", 1978), but "Am Strand" certainly strengthens its reputation as a master of the short form.

"On the Beach" is the humorous and painful portrayal of the thoroughly unsuccessful wedding night of two newlyweds in prudish England in the 1960s. More precisely, the action takes place in 1962, a date that the British author chose very deliberately. Because at the beginning of the 1960s, the subject of sex was still an absolute taboo, as the English poet Philip Larkin humorously expressed in his poem "Annus Mirabilis": "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me ) - / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP. "

For Edward and Florence, the protagonists of "On the Beach", the sexual revolution comes too late, because at the time of their wedding it is completely unthinkable to speak openly about sex. What should be one of the most beautiful events in a person's life quickly becomes a nightmare for these two 'virgins'. Fundamentally different expectations and unspoken fears turn the bride and groom into antagonists at the crucial moment. While Edward can't wait to 'consume' his marriage, for Florence this is the sacrifice she must make in order to be with Edward: " She just didn't want her to be 'penetrated'. Sex with Edward couldn't be the height of her pleasure, just the price she had to pay ". Florence is terrified of the act of love itself, but neither this nor Edward's fear of failure the first time is ever put into words by the protagonists. This lack of trust and communication inevitably leads to disaster. Edward arrives too early and his bride, disgusted by the sight of his premature ejaculation clinging to her body like slime, runs headlong out of the bridal suite overlooking the ocean to recover from the shock on the beach alone.

Ian McEwan is a master of the fictional elaboration of what many of his critics call the "transfiguring event", a traumatic experience that irrevocably changes the lives of everyone involved. In "Ein Kind zur Zeit" (1987) it was the child abduction that was never cleared up, in "Liebeswahn" (1997) the tragic hot air balloon accident and in "Atonement" (2001) the wrong words at the wrong time. For Edward and Florence, their wedding night 'on the beach' becomes a trauma. In contrast to "Atonement", in which the naive and unfounded accusations of a thirteen-year-old girl had catastrophic effects on the lives of others, the protagonists of "Am Strand" seal their own fate. Their persistent silence and their inability to compromise block their path to reconciliation.

Once again, McEwan is playing with the expectations of his readers. Instead of revealing the traumatic experience directly - as for example in "Liebeswahn", in which the description of the hot air balloon accident is already on the first pages - the British author excites us this time extremely on the torture by shortly before the 'climax' (before Edward and Florence go into the bedroom) inserts extensive passages on Edward and Florence's past. In an interview with the New York Times, McEwan describes this as a kind of 'foreplay' with the reader. The alternation between fast-moving action and slow, detailed background information not only reflects the ups and downs of the sea on the beach in Dorset, which serves as a backdrop, but also creates - similar to the methods of a detective novel - an almost unbearable arc of suspense for the reader.

Of course, after the first few pages you are dying to know how Edwards and Florences' 'first time' ends. However, by deliberately withholding information initially, it forces the reader to read the novel on different levels. Otherwise, he runs the risk of overlooking subtle but important hints, such as the implied sexual abuse of Florence by her father, which offers a possible explanation for her extreme aversion to sex. McEwan's precision work at the sentence level pays off, because "Am Strand" once again proves his outstanding talent for the meticulous and accurate representation of extremely complex emotions.

McEwan uses the traumatic or 'transfigurating' experience as a narratological tool. It enables him to put his protagonists to the test by confronting them with an extraordinary, physically destabilizing situation. In an instant her world, which was just fine, collapses. Attraction turns into disgust, tenderness into brutality, love into hate. The wedding night, which has escalated into a traumatic event, elicits extreme, deeply hidden emotions from the protagonists and thus reveals in one fell swoop what McEwan analyzes in his psychologically oriented novels in a striking way: human nature.

Despite the somewhat strange innocence and ignorance of sex that both protagonists display from today's perspective, the subject is still of universal interest. Even in the age of sexual liberation and enlightenment, many people find it extremely difficult to talk about sex, feelings and their associated fears.

The exciting and sensitively written novel is both stylistically and thematically well done and will not disappoint the ever increasing number of McEwan fans.

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