On Chesil Beach quotes

The secret affair between love and joy. 23


They regarded themselves as too sophisticated to believe in destiny, but still, it remained a paradox to them that so momentous a meeting should be accidental, so dependent on a hundred minor events and choices. What a terrifying possibility, that it might never have happened at all. 37


Social change never proceeds at an even pace. 40


Now here at last were the beginnings of desire, precise and alien, but clearly her own; and beyond, as though suspended above and behind her, just out of sight, was relief that she was like everyone else. 87-8


His anger stirred her own and suddenly she thought she understood their problem: they were too polite, too constrained, too timorous, they went around each other on tiptoes, murmuring, whispering, deferring, agreeing. They barely knew each other, and never could because of the companionable near-silence that smothered their differences and blinded them as much as it bound them. They had been frightened of ever disagreeing, and now his anger was setting her free. 148


All she needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them […] This is how the entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing. 166


On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach image

[Published 2007 by Jonathan Cape]

‘On Chesil Beach’ is a reminder that a veritable sexual revolution has taken place between the mid twentieth century and today. Entering the bedroom of virgin newlyweds, the reader bears silent witness to the couple’s anxieties and fears as they face the consummation of their marriage. In an age where sexual discourse runs rampant, it feels like the characters are living an age apart.

The reader can’t help but wonder if they are doomed. Is the modern age necessarily better? Is love, in general enough, or does it rely on its component parts, one of which is sex and sexual compatibility? Ian McEwan takes this very charged scenario – one where the reader is immediately trapped in the tense web of the ominous and the devastating – and deals sensitively with it.

The novel casts a light on the conservatism of the fifties and sixties. Edward and Florence are thrust into adulthood at a time when there are underlying divisions between children and adults, men and women; so much so that this is institutionalised into their lives in a number of forms. Freedom is almost stifled by the mores that exist in their society, and the prevailing norms undeniably affect how their lives transpire. This is so in numerous respects, but one quickly picks up that the desire to end virginity is one of the reasons that prompted Edward’s proposal.

They are in love and know that sex will form a component of their marriage, and yet do not have the ability to speak to one another about it. From our vantage point in the future, this much-explored topic, though still a sensitive one for most, has become something that most couples, I am sure (and would hope), discuss. That said, even as I write it, I wonder whether it is still a veiled topic among couples – a source of shame, fear, and unfettered expectation.

This book opens the floodgates to the widespread sexual anxiety most experience in their lives – the anticipation of it, the complications that can arise from it (or from its absence). Florence considers it a duty she would have to fulfil, although she feels repulsion at the thought of it. The book forces the reader into a position of rather uncomfortable empathy and raises questions that, even now, many of us may not give due cognisance. We may have moved from a position of the innocence and even seeming naiveté of the period in question, but what wisdom have we accrued in those decades?

In all of these musings, we are taken through Florence and Edward’s histories – shown how they came to this point in a world young readers will view as a real piece of history. The cracks begin to show against the backdrop of, seemingly, the perfect love and real attraction. Sex is the catalyst of awareness and breaks way to cruelty, which comes as a shock when considering how deep their love seems to run on the surface, yet is also unsurprising when the reader thinks of the weight attributed by each of them to sex, which is elemental in the outcome of the book.

In their case, the cost of propriety was high and McEwan opens the floodgates of emotion from which the reader cannot find immunity. This is a short little book with an array of depths and an immensely high impact.

Swimming to Ithaca quotes

Death begins from the moment of conception. A life is the history of death. 3


Memory gives instants of remembering, like a night-time landscape lit by a summer storm. 109


But for the moment his mother is everything, the all-consuming love, the love that dare not speak its name because there is no word for it. 257


Men feel guilt about excess, women about paucity. 258

Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer

Swimming to Ithaca image

[First published 2006 by Little, Brown]

Simon Mawer is quickly climbing the ranks as one of my favourite authors. Everything I read of his sweeps me away and leaves me thinking long after the last page has been read. The writing is sublime, the stories are gripping. It is the ultimate reading experience. ‘Swimming to Ithaca’ is admittedly not my favourite novel of his thus far, but it is exceptional nonetheless.

The opening of the book introduces us to Thomas as his mother, Dee, dies. As he and his sister try to come to terms with grief, dealing with all of the material aspects that arise in the aftermath of death, he finds himself haunted by the memory of his mother. This is especially so in light of the fact that, in one of her final conversations with her son, she pronounced her illness and death to be a punishment.

The narrative weaves between Thomas as he packs up his mother’s home, allows himself to look into the hidden elements of her personal life, and engages in a relationship with one of his students; and their memories of their life in Cyprus after World War II. It is almost as if these questions have been lying dormant during the course of her life and, now she is gone, he has the courage to confront the truth. It is a story written on the real and the supposed for Thomas – memory mingles with conjecture over his mother’s life and affairs during their years in a ravaged Cyprus.

From her account, we learn that her greatest love affair was with Charteris – a man who left for war and never came home. She tries to hold on to anything that even vaguely resembles him and the role he played in her life which, in some respects, can account for how things transpired in Cyprus.

As the story unfolds, the reader gets a tangible sense of the divisions within Cyprus and how the British presence there often exacerbated the problem rather than allayed it. It was an atmosphere of secrecy and division – a world that Dee and her family don’t really fit into comfortably, yet one that will have an effect on their lives. As the truth begins to reveal itself to the reader, we are made aware of the intensity of feelings Thomas felt towards his mother, sense the damage, and yearn for the truth to unfold. His actions seem an act of catharsis – although we do not get a clear picture of what he is looking to purge until the end.

Thomas is almost trapped in this past of secrets, so much so that his pursuit of a relationship with his student Kale is an act of rebellion against his mother, although she would never be able to see it. Like his mother, however, he is assuaged by the fear of loss. His love for his mother is a powerful thing, affected by its context from when he was growing up and what has been repressed. Moreover, this book documents how love can shift and mutate into something consuming and destructive, assuming an identity where resentment and distrust can flourish.

‘Swimming to Ithaca’ examines how simple acts are not immune from the universal applicability of ‘cause and effect’ – making what may seem to be incidental and fleeting the catalyst of a chain of events that can alter the lives of those around us. It is an exposé on the fragility of human relationships, guilt, betrayal, and the power of history to affect the future.

‘Levels of Life’ quotes

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless. 1 [The Sin of Height]

In the beginning, birds flew, and God made the birds. Angels flew and God made the angels. Men and women had long legs and empty backs, and God had made them like that for a reason. To mess with flight was to mess with God. It was to prove a long struggle, full of instructive legends. 11

Aeronautics and photography were scientific advances with practical civic consequences. And yet, in their early years, an aura of mystery and magic surrounded each of them. 23

Perhaps the world progresses not by maturing, but by being in a permanent state of adolescence, of thrilled discovery. 25-6

You put two things together that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 31 [On the Level]

So why do we constantly aspire to love? Because love is the meeting point of truth and magic. Truth, as in photography; magic, as in ballooning. 37

“I shall love you for as long as I shall love you.” What lover could ask for more? 61

One grief throws no light upon another. 70

[…] discovered that, on top of (or, perhaps, beneath) all the predictable ways, I had also missed her morally. This came as a surprise, but maybe it shouldn’t have. Love may not lad where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that – if it is not moral in its effect – then love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure. Whereas grief, love’s opposite, dos not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish […] You can no longer hear yourself living. 82

We live on the flat, on the level, and yet – and so – we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracturing force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes for both.

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Levels of Life image


[Published 2013 by Random House. First published 2013.]


Love is for the brave.


Julian Barnes wrote ‘Levels of Life’ following the death of his wife, after a couple of years of ruminating on love, death, and grief. I do not know if I can write a review that will do this book justice and explain the impact it has had on me. I am a huge fan of Julian Barnes – he writes books with an underlying voice that makes the stories real. But this takes that idea to a new level. I cannot help but wonder if he has known all along that his literary career would culminate in a memoir that gives everything he has written a new perspective – one that fits into the levels of life.


‘Levels of Life’ is divided into three books – ‘The Sin of Height,’ ‘On the Level’ and ‘The Loss of Depth.’ The first half of the book contains stories of the pioneer aeronauts and early photographers, and a love story between an actress and one of these balloonists. The second half, the bulk of the book, is where he lays bare the nature of his grief in losing his wife. The latter is more than you could expect – it gives me goosebumps every time I think about it. The three sections are tied up into a book that will reverberate with those who let it, long after the last page has been read.


I will not write too much. I believe everyone should experience ‘Levels of Life’ for themselves. It is a book that made me wonder if we are each born with our own individual wisdom – with Barnes unveiling the answers to some of life’s questions through his writing. And then I realised that the reason for the depth and impact of this book was the honesty; the wisdom that comes through grief (though we would probably be just as happy without it), and the unravelling of the strata of life, through which we shall all stumble.


This is a memoir of his grief. It visits many of the planes that will make up most of our life stories – risk-taking, denial, magic, love, truth, grief, and remembering. And, in Barnes’s own shaking yet powerful voice, we bear witness to a man broken by love lost through death.  Grief is unique to us all, yet exclusive to no-one. This man shares his experience in the best way he knows how, and turns the darkest nooks and crannies of real life into a work of pure, breathtaking art.


‘Levels of Life’ is an exploration of marriage and love and its opposite – loss and grief. To anyone thinking of and, indeed, those who are already married, this book should be read for good measure. It exposes the enormity of the undertaking to love; knowing it will come to an end; knowing it will end in incomprehensible heartbreak. There is, however, bravery in grief and, although death may change the status quo, it cannot eliminate real love.


[On a slightly deeper personal note, I was deeply moved to read this book a few weeks before getting married. For those who take love and the institution of marriage seriously, it is something that we don’t afford enough time when planning our lives together. Love can end in any number of ways and, for those fortunate enough to live long lives together separated by death, no amount of thought on the matter can prepare you for the gravity of the loss.


My mother was a young widow. I believe lamentation in the face of loss is something as distinct to us as a fingerprint. But to have a peephole into the turmoil of grief is a gift. I will read this book many times in my life. I will immerse myself in the emotion of it.


It was also a fitting book to read after ‘Everyman,’ with the two books having very contrasting perspectives on death from those going through it and those left behind.]

Everyman quotes

[…] eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story. 71


Even in retirement he’s continued to have the air of an omnipotent being dedicated all his life to an important mission, but in those eleven months before he died he seemed pierced by bewilderment, dazed by his diminishment, dazed by his helplessness, dazed to think that the dying man enfeebled in a wheelchair […] could answer his name. 87


But lying – lying is cheap, contemptible control over the other person. It’s watching the other person acting on incomplete information – in other words, humiliating herself. Lying is so commonplace and yet, if you’re on the receiving end, it’s such an astonishing thing. The people you liars are betraying put up with a growing list of insults until you really can’t help but think less of them, can you? I’m sure that liars are skilful and persistent and devious as you reach the point where it’s the one you’re lying to, and not you, who seems like the one with the serious limitations. 121-2


[…] it is for her as it is for everyone. It’s because life’s most disturbing intensity is death. It’s because death is so unjust. It’s because once one has tasted life, death does not even seem natural. 169


They were just bones, bones in a box, but their bones were his bones, and he stood as close to the bones as he could, as though the proximity might link him up with them and mitigate the isolation born of losing his future and reconnect him with all that had gone. For the next hour and a half, those bones were the things that mattered most. They were all that mattered, despite the impingement of the neglected cemetery’s environment of decay. Once he was with those bones he could not leave them, couldn’t not talk to them, couldn’t not listen to them when they spoke. Between him and those bones there was a great deal going on, far more than now transpired between him and those still clad in their flesh. The flesh melts away but the bones endure. The bones were the only solace there was to one who put no stock in an afterlife and knew […] this was the only life he’d have […]

He couldn’t go. The tenderness was out of control. As was the longing for everyone to be living. And to have it all over again. 170-1