Friday, February 22, 2008

Book Note: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and The Penguin Book of first World War Poetry

I was somewhat surprised to find myself reading this one, as it is distinctly not the sort of thing I usually read! The circumstances themselves were unusual, we were away from home for a couple of days, and I didn't take enough reading material with me, finished what I had brought and my wife handed me this, which she had bought and suggested that it might fill the gap.

The story is set in the 1960s and concerns a young couple of newlyweds, Edward and Florence, as they embark on their honeymoon.

Simply and straightforwardly written, McEwan tells the story of one night at a hotel on Chesil beach, their wedding night, in which all the naive pair's sexual hopes, fears, scars and expectations, all collide in the absence of communication - with consequences which shape their lives. The book ranges accross their past histories and what has brought each of them to this scene, and pans forward through time to explore its consequences.

Tragic, painful, erotic, troubling and revealing, the story is gently explored with facts emerging, and hidden secrets being alluded to - so that the whole picture only slowly appears. The tragic and the hopeful are nicely intertwined throughout the book, as it provides the reader both with the narrative and the thoughts of both participants - as they fail to understand each other. Far from leaving the reader in despair at the fate of the imaginaries however, I thought that it provoked a longing for communication and knowing - with a compelling relevance in the real world. An oddly hopeful gloom!

Now here's a strange one! Tove Jansson's "Summer Book" is the recipient of rave reviews, which proclaim it as a short story, which is a great work of insight and philosophy, humour and brilliant characterisation.

Well - it was enjoyable, atmospheric in spades, quirky in almost every way and an overdose of whimsy in creating the mood and sense of place on the remote Finnish island communities in which it is set (all of which are comendable).

Why is it that every Scandanavian book I have every read is concerned with death? Very long dark winters may have somthing to do with it!

Beyond these amusing atributes the book didn't do a huge amount for me. I found it hard to connect with in many ways, and although it kept my attention to the end, and has left a mark in my mind with some of the memorable scenes described, by the end I was a little dissapointed. Perhaps though this wasn't the fault of the book. If I had stumbled accross it in an ordinary jacket and opened it, I might have been intrugued and drawn in. The fact that the reviews I had read were so adulatory perhaps raised my expectations to an unrealistic level which could only lead to dissapointment!

And so back here again to a book which has been read and re-read over the years. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry is something which never fails to engage my mind, move me deeply and make me profoundly depressed all day! I found last week when my wife and I were selcting our favourite poems from various sources, I was quite unable to read some of these out loud.

The horror of the trenches was not captured best in early films, photos or by war correspondants, but by the diaries and poems of the volunteers whose lives were the ammunition that the rival European empires threw at each other between 1914-18. This little compemdium captures a good cross section from a whole range of authors including famous works by writers such as Wilfred Owen. For some reason, I think it is Seigfried Sasoon's poems which I find most revealing, and which bring their experiences home to me with the most peculiar force. I think it is the combination of his heartfelt and expressive turn-of-phrase, and the way in which he picks out specific details of the individual dead, capturing the sense of loss more acutely than some of the grander poems which seek to capture the senselessness of the whole. He picks out odd details of their lives, or clothes, pictures wives and mothers waiting and home, or the strange rituals written out in final letters from the front. Sassoons' diaries and post-war reflections are also well worth a read.

Reading selections from this book actually makes me look at the country differently. Young men from farms, villages, and from this town all crowded into trains which left Perth for army training camps and the front. Every town and village has its war memorials, like the charming one overlooking the river at Tayport. The railway station has a sombre brass plaque, which lists the men of Perth General Station who were killed in France and never came back to this town, while old pictures of Perth often feature the "Patriotic Barrow"; a mobile recruiting station, which drummed up support for the war effort and persuaded men to sign up. I read these poems and am drawn into their world, then look at my house built in 1910 and wonder who lived here; if they went to France, if they returned, or if they still lie in Flanders, Ypres, Paschendale or The Somme.

Basra? Helmand? How many more poems are there to be written now?

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