The Book Nook aims to give an insight into the bookshelves of editor’s and writer’s of The Yorker. It acts as a type of online book club and reviewing platform, where editor’s and writer’s can review and reflect on recent books they have read. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you and your book would like to be featured! Welcoming all forms of literature. September’s Book Nook features: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell.
Esther Vincent. On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (2007)
In this short novella, Ian McEwan delivers a sensory tale of anxiety, naivety and regret. Having initially been shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize, On Chesil Beach regained attention recently following its adaptation into a film, starring Academy Award winner Saoirse Ronan. Most known for Atonement, McEwan in this smaller-scale story tackles equally weighty emotional content with ease and poignancy.
Whilst Atonement is set in three different time periods, McEwan – perhaps more ambitiously, confines most of his narrative to that of a single night: a young couple’s wedding night. Resting just on the periphery of the 60’s, the dual perspective of Edward and Florence explores the multifaceted significance of marriage in this era. For Edward, the night holds promise, despite some conventional nervousness. For Florence, however, the stakes are far higher. Disgusted by the thought of sex, yet feeling the pressure to please her new husband, Florence’s voice is laced with anxiety and over-analysis.
The dual narrative is peppered with flashbacks, affectionately illustrating Edward and Florence’s blossoming relationship and their respective family situations. Florence comes from a wealthy family and is a prodigy violinist; Edward is from poorer origins but is equally well educated, pursuing a dream to write history books. In the moments of back story, the pair are fleshed out beyond the high emotional charge of their inner thoughts that evening. We see Florence’s fun side, we see her intellectual seriousness, and we view her physicality through the lens of Edward’s sexual frustration. This works well as a backdrop to Florence’s anxiety, which has built up throughout her relationship with Edward, in where there was little opportunity for physical intimacy (although, Florence’s inner monologue is easily transferable to any woman, in any time.)
Despite essentially being two perspectives of the same event, On Chesil Beach deftly explores a multitude of themes, including the class divide and masculinity. The book most obviously deals with sex and gender, but this is underscored by exceedingly English perspectives on marriage generally – that is, as a boundary marking independence and maturity. Issues of class emerge later in a very subtle way. All these themes are alluded to in almost a single moment of conflict, which truly highlights McEwan’s talents as a writer. Amid all the tension for the night bubbling under the surface, simple facts of miscommunication make the narrative far more frustrating. It is noted at the beginning of the book that both Florence and Edward are embarking upon their wedding night as virgins. Despite this, Florence assumes Edward’s sexual history is far richer, highlighting much of what is unspoken between the two of them.
McEwan works with tension gracefully, always elaborating on the physical moments he sets up: “She wanted to linger in this spacious moment, in these fully clothed conditions, with the soft brown-eyed gaze and the tender caress and the spreading thrill. But she knew this was impossible, and that, as everyone said, one thing would lead to another.” Although Florence does begin to feel affection and pleasure towards Edward, this scene represents the boundary at which she is content, and Edward can choose whether or not to push forward. These pivotal moments of choice, of whether to rest or to take action, recur throughout the whole novel.
A deceptively simple novel, On Chesil Beach beautifully describes the intricacies of two anxious and explosive young minds. It is a short but striking read, brimming with possibility.
Violet Daniels. All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doer (2014)
Winner of the Pulizter Prize for Fiction in 2015, All The Light We Cannot See is a beautifully crafted work of fiction set in the depths of World War Two. In short interchanging chapters it follows experiences of those living through the war, running them in parallel with each other. The book focuses heavily on the character of Marie-Laure, a young French girl living in the heart of Paris during Nazi occupation. Marie-Laure is blind and relies on memory, sound and smells to work her ways through Paris in the midst of war. Her experiences take the reader on a reading journey littered with sensory narratives and beautifully crafted metaphors. Another character paralleled with Marie-Laure is Werner, a young man recruited as part of the Hitler Youth, given the responsibility of tracking down Nazi resistance.
All The Light We Cannot See is fundamentally a book about the horrors of war and how it lived on in the minds of people experiencing it front hand. But it is also about hope. Despite the darkness of war, the book evokes the reoccurring sense of light at the end of the tunnel.
The story plays on many themes and ideas to evoke a sense of war, which is not necessarily only visual in experience. In drawing upon the character of Marie-Laure, the sense that war could be multi-sensory is emphasized. Although Marie-Laure could not visually witness what was going on around her, she is at the forefront of wartime experience in her confrontation of occupied Paris. The reader is provided with an insight into her experience as she becomes even more accustomed via sounds and smells. The idea of sight and vision is en-laced with deeper meaning; ‘The Light We Cannot See’ may imply the forgotten war experience as generations pass away without telling their stories. It plays on the idea of how World War Two remained embedded within individual memory and their perception of events and history unfolding around them.
The book is filtered with eloquent meters of description and wonderfully crafted metaphors which make it a joy to read, despite its stark context. The beauty and intricacy of the natural world is a central part of the book and is emphasized in conjunction with the destructive abilities of war. It maintains the idea that within realms of war and destruction, there will always be beauty and promise. ‘The Light We Cannot See‘ alludes to the hopeful light that becomes invisible once society is warped by war.
Central to the novel is also the human element and experience of war, the characters are captivating and each share the importance of human bond in living through the horrors of war. When her father is sent away, Marie-Laure spends each day hoping of his return and Werner thinking of his mother and sister back at home. Hope and love is what keeps them alive.
A delightful read and a fully sensory experience.
Isabelle Kennedy, I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O’Farrell
As a notorious worrier, a book chronicling 17 brushes with death doesn’t seem the obvious choice. However, Maggie O’Farrell’s autobiography, written through her experiences of death, is a gripping read. Rather than provoking fear, it is life-affirming, demonstrating both the fragility of human existence, but also the ability of people to overcome, and survive.
Written in body parts – each chapter is named after the part of the body ‘responsible’ for this brush with death – O’Farrell takes us through the decades of her life. Far from writing chronologically, she instead jumps from period to period, and back again. We first meet her in perhaps the most chilling of all stories, in the chapter entitled ‘Neck’. Far from a more ‘ordinary’ brush with death, such as a serious case of amoebic dysentery (treated with an equine antibiotic in a Chinese hospital), this chapter details her face to face experience with a murderer. Working in a remote village just after finishing her exams, an 18 year-old O’Farrell takes a walk after work, and comes face to face with a man she met walking in the other direction earlier on. The description of the remoteness, the fact that there is no one to help her is bone-chilling, and the tension is palpable as she tries to appear unconcerned and chat away happily, even after the man places a binocular strap around her neck. Eventually, she manages to walk on, unharmed. When she reports the incident to the police, it is brushed aside. The most chilling part of the account comes a week later, when she is visited by police concerning the rape and murder of a backpacker, strangled by a binocular strap.
In all of the accounts, the impact of how each event has shaped O’Farrell’s life is evident. Indeed, from being mugged at knife point in Chile, to a plummeting plane en route to Hong Kong, to volunteering to be the object of a circus knife-throwing trick, each story is told vividly, building up an intricate tapestry of O’Farrell’s life. The unordered structure of the book, constantly jumping between areas of her life, from child, to student, to mother, to friend, gives the reader a sense of really knowing and understanding O’Farrell’s life.
Far from being a book about death, this is in fact a book about life. Life, I Am, I Am, I Am, seems to say, is framed by the possibility of drama and peril. But it is what you do around this possibility that is important. Recommended for even the biggest worrier, this book is wonderfully life-affirming, and a pleasure to read from beginning to end.