McEwan is an eminent British novelist, a booker prize winner and the subject of a previous review on mine (‘Saturday’). This is a relatively slight work, both in its length and subject matter. It almost reads as an extended short story. The subject matter is an investigation of Englishness, within a narrow range of history (the early 1960s) and of social category – young middle class from Oxford and London.
The narrow focus of many English novelists disappoints me. And to what does this book amount? I can blow its key event, because it is trivial: the frigidity of a newly wed woman and the premature ejaculation of her husband. The attention to detail in describing their wedding night is clever and comic. It is not pornographic, but slightly voyeuristic. I did not find the protagonists particularly interesting, though they were skilfully put in context. I did not care that they did not see each other again after the failed wedding night, and felt indifferent to their fate.
The book does have a brilliant jewel at its centre, small though it is: their recriminatory conversation on the beach after the aforementioned ejaculation is intense and true-to-life. The unpremeditated flow of their emotions and the hurtful words they throw at each other define their lives from that moment on. The crux of the story is a moment of non-response when the man, Edward, lets her walk away out of sight forever, without stretching out a hand or saying a conciliatory, loving word. The inaction changes everything.
I think McEwan likes to write to capture these defining moments. But it does not matter much, in this case.