Authors: Ian McEwan
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Epub ISBN 9781409089957
Published by Vintage 1998
18 20 19 17
Copyright © Ian McEwan 1992
Ian McEwan has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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First published in Great Britain in 1992 by Jonathan Cape
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TO JON COOK, WHO
SAW THEM TOO
In these times I don’t, in a manner of speaking, know what I want; perhaps I don’t want what I know and want what I don’t know.
letter to Giovanni Cavalcanti,
Ian McEwan has written two collections of stories,
First Love, Last Rites
In Between the Sheets
, and eleven novels,
The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Child in Time, The Innocent, Black Dogs, The Daydreamer, Enduring Love, Amsterdam, Atonement, Saturday
On Chesil Beach
. He won the Booker Prize for
ALSO BY IAN McEWAN
First Love, Last Rites
In Between the Sheets
The Cement Garden
The Comfort of Strangers
The Child in Time
On Chesil Beach
is cinematic in scope ... McEwan’s insights rise like vapours from the crater of history’
‘The book is kept alive by its adroit use of shifting perspectives, and its doubling back through time for multiple reconstructions, which vividly illustrate McEwan’s thesis that our point of view alters the very way we see, feel and remember events. Here, his old skill for getting inside the skins of his characters serves him as well as ever. The book richly suggests our human potentialities for mere waste as well as sheer evil, and for a sort of imperilled happiness; the dogs, which disappear into the foothills of Europe like “black stains in a grey dawn”, could take any form to reappear’
‘Quivering with an almost ESP alertness to the different ways in which human beings can be damaged,
pads masterfully around territory Ian McEwan has long marked out as his own ... acutely conscious of life’s ability to injure the helpless, he wholeheartedly empathises with the menaced victim against the panting predators ... a further testament to one of recent fiction’s most remarkable regenerations ... McEwan’s transformation ... to a novelist unsurpassed for his responsive, responsible humanity’
‘A chilling parable for our times’
‘A powerful, strangely unforgettable book ... about the existence of evil and whether it can be defeated by rational action’
‘Leisurely and expansive meditation on the nature of good and evil, the moral limits of political reform and religious belief, the intoxications of violence and the redemptive power of love – in less that a hundred and fifty pages, and without a trace of pretension or a moment of tedium. This is a brilliant book’
The places mentioned in this novel correspond to actual French villages, but the characters associated with them are entirely fictional and bear no resemblance to persons living or dead. The Maire’s story and the Maire himself have no basis in historical fact.
VER SINCE I
lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people’s parents. This was particularly true during my teens when many of my friends were casting off their own folk, and I did rather well in a lonely, hand-me-down way. In our neighbourhood there was no shortage of faintly dejected fathers and mothers only too happy to have at least one seventeen-year-old around to appreciate their jokes, advice, cooking, even their money. At the same time I was something of a parent myself. My immediate milieu in those days was the new and disintegrating marriage of my sister Jean to a man called Harper. My protégée and intimate in this unhappy household was my three-year-old niece, Sally, Jean’s only child. The rages and reconciliations that surged up and down the big apartment – Jean had inherited half the estate; my half was held in trust – tended to sweep Sally aside. Naturally, I identified with an abandoned child and so we holed up nicely from time to time in a large room overlooking the garden with her toys and my records, and a tiny kitchen we used whenever the savagery beyond made us not want to show our faces.
Looking after her was good for me. It kept me civilised and away from my own problems. Another two decades were to pass before I felt as rooted as I did then. Most of all I enjoyed the evenings when Jean and Harper were
out, particularly in the summer when I would read to Sally until she fell asleep, and later do my homework on the big table by the open french windows, facing out to the sweet smell of scented stock and traffic dust. I was studying for A levels at The Beamish on Elgin Crescent, a crammer which liked to call itself an academy. When I looked up from my work and saw Sally behind me in the darkening room, on her back, sheets and teddies pushed down below her knees, arms and legs flung wide, in what I took to be an attitude of completely misguided trust in the benevolence of her world, I was elated by a wild and painful protectiveness, a stab in the heart, and I am sure it was for this I have had four children of my own. I never had any doubts about it; at some level you remain an orphan for life; looking after children is one way of looking after yourself.
Unpredictably, Jean would burst in on us, powered by guilt or by a surplus of love from making peace with Harper, and she would bear Sally away to their end of the apartment with coos and hugs and worthless promises. That was when the blackness, the hollow feeling of unbelonging, was likely to come down. Rather than skulk about, or watch TV like other kids, I would slope off into the night, down Ladbroke Grove, to the household currently warmest to me. The images that come to mind after more than twenty-five years are of pale, stuccoed mansions, some peeling, others immaculate, Powis Square perhaps, and a rich yellow light from the open front door revealing in the darkness a white-faced adolescent, already six feet tall, shuffling inside his Chelsea boots. Oh, good evening Mrs Langley. Sorry to trouble you. Is Toby in?
More likely than not Toby is with one of his girls, or in the pub with friends, and I am backing off down the porch steps with my apologies until Mrs Langley calls me back with, ‘Jeremy, would you like to come in anyway?
Come on, have a drink with boring old us. I know Tom will be pleased to see you.’
Ritual demurrals, and the six-foot cuckoo is in, and being led across the hall to a huge, book-crammed room with Syrian daggers, a shaman’s mask, an Amazonian blow pipe with curare-tipped darts. Here Toby’s forty-three-year old father sits under a lamp reading untranslated Proust or Thucydides or Heine by an open window. He is smiling as he stands and extends his hand.
‘Jeremy! How nice to see you. Have a scotch and water with me. Sit down over there and listen to this, tell me what you think.’
And eager to engage me in talk that bears on my subjects (French, History, English, Latin) he turns back a few pages to some awesome convolution from
A L’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs
, and I, equally eager to show off and be accepted, rise to the challenge. Good-humouredly, he corrects me, then later we might consult Scott-Moncrieff and Mrs Langley will come in with sandwiches and tea and they will ask after Sally, and want to know the latest between Harper and Jean whom they have never met.
Tom Langley was a diplomat with the Foreign Office, posted home to Whitehall after three tours of duty abroad. Brenda Langley ran their beautiful home and gave lessons in the harpischord and piano. Like many of the parents of my friends from the Beamish Academy they were educated and well-off. What an exquisite, desirable combination that seemed to me whose background was middling income and no books.
But Toby Langley did not appreciate his parents at all. He was bored by their civilised, intellectually curious, open-minded ways, and by his spacious, orderly home, and by his interesting childhood spent in the Middle East, Kenya and Venezuela. He was half-heartedly studying two
A levels (Maths and Art) and said he did not want to go to university at all. He cultivated friends from the new high-rises towards Shepherd’s Bush, and his girlfriends were waitresses, and shop assistants with sticky bee-hive hair-dos. He pursued chaos and trouble by going out with several girls at once. He worked up a dim-witted mode of speech complete with glottal ‘t’s and ‘I fink’ and ‘I goes to him’ for ‘I said to him’ which became an ingrained habit. Since he was my friend I said nothing, but he caught my disapproval.
Though I maintained the pretext of calling on Toby when he was out, and Mrs Langley colluded with such protocols as ‘you might as well come in’, I was always welcome at Powis Square. Sometimes I was asked to give an insider’s opinion on Toby’s waywardness and I would sound off disloyally and priggishly about Toby’s need to ‘find himself’. Similarly, I inhabited the home of the Silversmiths, neo-Freudian psychoanalysts, man and wife, with amazing ideas about sex, and an American-sized fridge jam-packed with delicacies, whose three teenage children, two girls and a boy, were crazy louts who ran a shoplifting and playground extortion racket up at Kensal Rise. I was comfortable too in the big untidy home of my friend Joseph Nugent, also of the Beamish Academy. His father was an oceanographer who led expeditions to the uncharted seabeds of the world, his mother the first woman columnist on the
, but Joe thought his parents were dull beyond belief and preferred a gang of lads from Notting Hill who were happiest of an evening polishing up the multiple headlamps on their Lambretta scooters.