Note: it's really impossible to write anything with insight about this book without at least implied spoilers, so if you don't want even a hint of the outcome, do not
I can't decide whether this is a Postmodern novel about the death of Modernism, or a Modernist novel about the birth of Postmodernism. It, or at least its setting, the tone and the manners portrayed within it, is very much of the author's time (the early sixties) rather than its own (2007). If Modernism ends in or with this novel, it ends not with a bang (pardon the pun) but with the embarrassed whimper of a premature ejaculation.
It is 1962, and, as everyone knows, sexual intercourse did not begin until 1963. A man and a woman are on their wedding night, staying, like two characters in a Graham Greene novel, in one of those shabby genteel British seaside hotels. Everything is contained in the opening line: "They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." Discuss.
The novel is very short - 162 pages - but not by any means slight. It is the story of, I would say, just over an hour, with excursions to the past and the future. We see how a brief episode in a life is both informed by what has come before and has enormous repercussions for the way the life will unfold. In the same way, this brief, deceptively simple story contains within it through allusion and association its literary forbears, the Victorian (we can't escape echoes of "Dover Beach") the Modern, and its contemporaries.
It is told mostly in the prim, dry voice of a narrator who is not so detached from the unfolding events as to miss the humour in the awkwardness and acute embarrassment of the characters. The narrator becomes perhaps a third character in the novel; I say "perhaps" because I have my own theories about its identity, any explanation of which would involve even more egregious spoilers than are already contained here. I can foresee more future exam questions about the role of the narrator.
The main characters are both decent and likeable. Edward wants to escape from a home life shadowed by a mother damaged by a head injury, and Florence from a successful businessman father and aggressively blue-stocking mother. Edward has hidden depths of aggression revealed in an attraction to street fighting, and Florence is a talented musician whose own strong personality is expressed in her art and in her ability to found and lead a string quartet. Neither, then, is weak, yet both are completely undone by the prospect of The Act and The Act itself, he because he has withheld masturbation in the week leading up to this event, with predictable results, and she because she is sickened and frightened by the very idea of it, appalled by words like "penetration" in the sex manual she has studied. The outcome is almost inevitable.
The sex act becomes, then, a metaphor for life, or at least moments of consequence in a life. It is a novel about impotence or ineffectuality, the inability to act, to take action even if it will save a relationship or a life. As a result, it is in many ways as much a horror story as many of McEwan's earlier works.
for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.