On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

“Nothing was ever discussed—nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition.”

The only Ian McEwan novel I’d read before this one was ‘Atonement’, and I immediately noticed that they’re similar in theme. This isn’t a criticism, as the theme is a bloody interesting one. Both explore how misunderstandings destroy lives; in On Chesil Beach, however, it’s the words which go unsaid that cause lives to fall apart, rather than false assumptions as in Atonement. 

In 1962, two newly married virgins have a painful, frustrating wedding night. They lack the language to explain what happened, and the story is a painful one.Explaining their distress would involve skills of introspection which the two young adults simply don’t have, due to the well-meaning, stifling prissiness of their society. Each have problems that they can’t understand, let alone resolve. The language they need to explain and explore what’s wrong lies in parts of their minds they just can’t reach.

Melancholic and beautifully written, with prose which compares and weaves history and the mundane with precision, this is a great short read.

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

‘You will see me again. We are destined to be together. I will come back to you in dreams, or another life.’

The Incarnations by Susan Barker is an ambitious novel that centres around a taxi driver called Wang, who has begun to receive some disturbing letters from someone who claims to know him from past lives. We are swept across Chinese history and shown how these two are connected across centuries and reincarnations. Things get intense with Wang as this mysterious person begins stalking and threatening his family. A number of reviews call this book ‘China’s Midnights Children’, which I don’t think is fair to either Barker or Rushdie. While Midnight’s Children is meandering (in a good way!), The Incarnations is tightly plotted, to the point where, despite the lack of action scenes, the end of the book is so tense that it could almost be called a suspense novel.

Barker has a gift for pacing and quickly sweeping the reader into her worlds. When the past lives are inserted into the narrative, they could have come across as irritating as they often occur after cliffhangers. Instead, the tales of intrigue and betrayal are quickly engaging.

There’s a strange moment later in the novel, which shows the difficulty in fictionalising recent history: we’re shown young Chinese girls being forced to learn obviously skewed stories about the United States, which is explicitly criticised at times by the narrator; at other moments, we are watching these same young Chinese girls brutally torture those they suspect of capitalist thoughts and force feed their classmates pigs blood in a moment that feels like a crossover between Animal Farm and Carrie. I don’t doubt that things could be just as dangerous in Mao’s China as they are portrayed here. The purges and indoctrination are well documented. It’s that there’s something strange about a novel criticising biased portrayals about other cultures while at the same time showing China, over and over again, at its most brutal and cruel.

Despite its ambitions and engaging characters and story, The Incarnations never moves over the line from good to great to me. Things which engage sympathy rather than horror, and small touches of everyday life which can add verisimilitude to a story, crop up far less often than the Big Moments of strife, and the former would lend this novel pathos which is currently just lacking.

We’re shown the dazzle and oppression of this society, but the most riveting plots are of Wang’s marriage falling apart and the fate of his mother. That unfortunately makes the flashes to other lives not as engaging as they could be, despite the careful plotting, as they don’t feel entwined in the main narrative in the way that, say, Cloud Atlas managed.

I want to be clear: despite my complaints, I really liked this novel. The characters are well-crafted, and Barker’s prose is often intriguing even if it’s is let down by stilted dialogue. The Incarnation’s weaknesses only weigh it down as obviously as they do because its strengths helped it climb so close to greatness.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

“A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.”

This was recommended to me due to how much I like Margaret Atwood, which meant I went in with high expectations. Unfortunately, it just felt too dry to be to my taste in science fiction. I don’t think it’s a bad book, and I’m glad I read it as I can’t remember anything else quite like it. I just never became truly invested in what was happening.On a frozen planet of sexless androgynists, an envoy from another world arrives offering them membership in an interstellar partnership. In the wrong hands a premise like this could come across as a wacky “Planet of Hats” (re:TvTrope) attempt at hamfisted political exploration, but Le Guin has an impressive take on the actual ramifications of a society like this.

While The Left Hand of Darkness raises a number of interesting issues, I never grew all that invested in the story. The only part which I don’t think will meld together in my mind into a long description of dry conversations in cold rooms is an exciting expedition over a country-long stretch of ice.

The prose was at times thoughtful and measured, but everything moves along at a weird pace. The diary format results in the description of events like an attack on a farm lacking tension, which works in some moments as there is a lot of stuff to take in, and this allows for enormous exposition dumps without feeling too forced. But I only ever grew attached to one character, Estraven, and during the rest of the novel I felt like I was watching a slow-paced documentary. The subjects were interesting, and there were some intelligent observations made, but everything felt detached. I’d recommend it to people who are more interested in world-building than I am, though.