Synopses & Reviews
“The Evening Chorus
serenades people brutally marked by war, yet enduring to live — and relish — the tiny pleasures of another day. With her trademark prose — exquisitely limpid — Humphreys convinces us of the birdlike strength of the powerless.” — Emma Donoghue
Downed during his first mission, James Hunter is taken captive as a German POW. To bide the time, he studies a nest of redstarts at the edge of camp. Some prisoners plot escape; some are shot. And then, one day, James is called to the Kommandant’s office.
Meanwhile, back home, James’s new wife, Rose, is on her own, free in a way she has never known. Then, James’s sister, Enid, loses everything during the Blitz and must seek shelter with Rose. In a cottage near Ashdown forest, the two women jealously guard secrets, but form a surprising friendship. Each of these characters will find unexpected freedom amid war’s privations and discover confinements that come with peace. The Evening Chorus is a beautiful, astonishing examination of love, loss, escape, and the ways in which the intrusions of the natural world can save us.
“The Evening Chorus sparkles.” —Jo Baker
“A poised, lyrical novel about the griefs of war, written with poetic intensity of observation.” —Helen Dunmore
“This riveting novel is a song. Listen.” —Richard Bausch
"It's a bit voyeuristic. Borderline pervy. And if McEwan wasn't so good at building tension, it'd be incredibly dull....But coming off the heels of his highly praised and 'important' novels like Atonement
, On Chesil Beach
just feels light....Where are the big ideas? The literary ambition? Chalk it up as an amuse-bouche, a good summer read, before his next big one." Buddy Kite, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
"After two big, ambitious novels...McEwan has inexplicably produced a small, sullen, unsatisfying story that possesses none of those earlier books' emotional wisdom, narrative scope or lovely specificity of detail....[A] smarmy portrait of two incomprehensible and unlikable people." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"The story unfolds in a perfect manner, withholding now and then for effect, even omitting sometimes, with the result that On Chesil Beach is not only a wonderful read but also perhaps that rarest of things: a perfect novel." San Francisco Chronicle
"If McEwan's first chapters generally ought to be sent, like Albert Pujols's bats, to the Hall of Fame, then we may agree that in this instance his first sentence is a first chapter of its own." Jonathan Lethem, New York Times
"On Chesil Beach, a novella-length story, is a short, sad, slight book about anxiety, inexperience, hope and the triumph of failure. Vintage McEwan." Chicago Sun-Times
"[R]eplete with pleasures: keen observations of family dynamics, of English life, of fortune's randomness." Los Angeles Times
"[P]acks a pretty good wallop....Marvelously realized and treacherously conceived." Boston Globe
"McEwan's stories are introspective and, at times, told at a wondering distance....The most moving section of the book is the final, fifth section in which the future is revealed in its entire could-have, should-have splendor." Denver Post
"[T]hough life is never easy, as the narrator reminds us, gorging ourselves on McEwan's impeccable prose is." Miami Herald
"[An] achingly beautiful narrative....Conventional in construction and realistic in its representation of addled psychology, the novel is ingenious for its limited but deeply resonant focus." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Breathtaking." The Washington Post Book World
"The Evening Chorus deserves a special place on your reading list this winter."
—Alan Cheuse, NPR All Things Considered
“Humphrey’s prose is spare, concrete, sculpted . . . . deeply rooted in the rhythms and imagery of nature. . . . Humphreys sees nature as something consoling, even redemptive.”
—The New York Times Book Review
"Scintillating...What Humphreys does so well, in beautiful, precise prose, is convey the shock of that violence, how it rends the everyday. I am very glad to have spent some of my moments on earth reading The Evening Chorus. I reached the end with a sense of wonder that so much life and pain and beauty could be contained in so few pages."
—The Boston Globe
"Humphreys (Nocturne, 2013, etc.) offers a heartbreaking yet redemptive story about loss and survival...Humphreys deserves more recognition for the emotional intensity and evocative lyricism of her seemingly straightforward prose and for her ability to quietly squirrel her way into the reader’s heart."
—Kirkus, starred review
"Like birds thrown off course by severe storms, James, Rose, and Enid all emerge from the war in places far different from where they started. Inspired by the resiliency of the natural world, Humphreys (Coventry, 2009) creates a narrative arc that is compact and sinewy, yet from her spare prose and refined imagery springs an arresting novel of regret, contrition, and redemption that glimmers with transcendent moments of hope and valor. An ingeniously elegant and instinctively restrained tale about the durability of the human spirit."
—Booklist, starred review
“The Evening Chorus is a quietly commanding narrative of nature’s constancy in a time of unspeakable human ruin…. In characteristically effortless prose, Humphreys relates a familiar tale of love and loss in war, but reveals a valuable truth: that nature in its timeless wisdom has the ability to remind humans, in the darkest of days, of their humanity.”
—Quill & Quire
"A lyrical novel about loss, love and the natural world."
"Award winning Canadian author Helen Humphreys' latest novel is a beautifully written exploration of the impact of war and peace on her four central characters...They all discover that, paradoxically, war brings unexpected freedom, which peace will eventually destroy."
—The Syndey Morning Herald
"Humphreys' prose is nuanced and deceptively plainspoken; under its simplicity lies profound observation of human emotion."
"Poignantly explores the sorrows of war and consolations of nature … A story of heartbreak and hope, it unfolds against a mesmerizingly described natural world."
"Absorbing, richly characterized, and marked by smart, delightful twists and turns, the novel’s fruitful visitation of war and its aftermath never fails to captivate. If there is such a thing as a cultural vocabulary of war, Humphreys adds welcome new words to it...In highlighting the wondrous (if at times vexing) unknowability of our lives — that a sudden impulsive idea, or a decision to turn left instead of right, can usher in unforeseeable consequences — The Evening Chorus artfully imagines how that might play out for one quartet. And with her usual faultless eloquence, Helen Humphreys makes our witnessing of their causes and effects memorably instructive."
"The Evening Chorus serenades people brutally marked by war, yet enduring to live - and relish - the tiny pleasures of another day. With her trademark prose - exquisitely limpid - Humphreys convinces us of the birdlike strength of the powerless."
—Emma Donoghue, author of Room and many others
“In The Evening Chorus the interventions of war, and the resulting human tragedies, play out against a natural world at once remote, alien and ultimately redemptive. The novel has a crystalline quality about it—it's clear and complex and self-contained. It sparkles.”
—Jo Baker, author of Longbourn and others
“The Evening Chorus is a poised, lyrical novel about the griefs of war, written with poetic intensity of observation. It resonates afterwards. I read it with pleasure.”
—Helen Dunmore, author of The Siege and A Spell of Winter, among others
“If there's a writer of English prose with a more profound connection to the natural world and to the subtleties of human love and sorrow than Helen Humphreys, I don't know who it is. The Evening Chorus is rich with her particular gift for symphonic cadences and beautiful imagery that moves a story forward with the momentum of a big train gathering speed. This riveting novel is a song. Listen.”
—Richard Bausch, author of The Last Good Time, the forthcoming Before, During, After and others
“I love this book. It is so beautifully written. So sad and full of loss and so hopeful at the same time. I truly think that we all do not recognize those moments, or truly appreciate them, when they are happening, but only after many years can we look back and realize they were special, or even amazing. Bright spots in a long journey through life that is mostly made up of the everyday dull and even dreary. [There are] scenes that strike blows to your heart and make you realize the ultimate value of pain is that you are alive to experience it.”
—Micheal Fraser, Joseph-Beth Booksellers
"Quietly profound and gorgeously written, The Evening Chorus is among the most moving new novels I've read in years."—Garth Greenwell, Towleroad.com
"Hauntingly beautiful, and highly thought provoking...Beautiful on every page."
—History and Women
"Humphreys is a masterful writer; her prose is quiet and simple yet devastating and perfect."
"Humphreys is an extraordinary prose stylist...I marveled at every sentence of The Evening Chorus."
"This is such a beautiful story and elegantly told."
—A Work in Progress
A novel of remarkable depth and poignancy from one of the most acclaimed writers of our time.
It is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at University College of London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence's response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence's anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.
Ian McEwan has caught with understanding and compassion the innocence of Edward and Florence at a time when marriage was presumed to be the outward sign of maturity and independence. On Chesil Beach is another masterwork from McEwan a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
In 1962, Florence and Edward celebrate their wedding in a hotel on the Dorset coast. Yet as they dine, the expectation of their marital duties weighs over them. And unbeknownst to both, the decisions they make this night will resonate throughout their lives. With exquisite prose, Ian McEwan creates in On Chesil Beach a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
A novel following James, a pilot struggling to survive in a German POW camp, his young war-bride, Rose, back in England trying to make sense of her life, and his sister, whose own story is also rewritten by the tragedies of WWII
Shot down on his first mission, James is taken to a German POW camp. To bide the time, he studies a family of birds. Some prisoners have been taken out of the camp and shot; some plot escape. And then, one day, the Kommandant invites him for a drive.
With James away, his young war bride Rose is free in a way she has never known — working as an air raid warden, roaming the countryside with only her dog as company. Until a furloughed soldier brings new choices.
And then Jamess sister, Enid, is bombed out of London. She loses her home and her lover in one tragic, impersonal act of war. Her only refuge is her brothers — Roses — home. Each is protective of her secrets, but the two form a surprising friendship.
Each of these characters will find liberty amid wars privations and discover confinements that come with peace. From a writer of “delicate and incandescent” (San Francisco Chronicle) prose, The Evening Chorus offers a beautiful, spare examination of the natural world and the human heart.
Amid the chaos of World War II, three people find unexpected freedom through their connection to the natural world.
About the Author
Ian McEwan is the bestselling author of more than ten books, including the novels Saturday; Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award, as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets. He lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. What do the novel's opening lines tell us about Edward and Florence? How did your perceptions of them change throughout the subsequent pages? What details did you eventually know about them that they never fully revealed to one another?
2. Is Edward's libido truly the primary reason he proposes marriage, or were other factors involved (perhaps ones he did not even admit to himself)? Are relationships harmed or helped by cultural restrictions against sex before marriage? Would this marriage have taken place if the couple had met when birth control pills were no longer just a rumor?
3. Edward replays the words “with my body I thee worship” in his mind. What might have been the intention in including that line when this version of the marriage ceremony was written? How does it make Edward feel?
4. Ian McEwan describes the novel's time period as an era when youth was not glorified but adulthood was. We are also told that Edward was born in 1940, while his parents contemplated possible outcomes of the war with Germany. At what point did Edward and Florence's solemnity become viewed as old-fashioned? What contributed to that shift? What are your recollections, or those shared by relatives who lived it, of the emerging youth culture of the late 1960s and '70s?
5. Were Florence and Edward incompatible in ways beyond sexual ones? What do their difficulties in bed say about their relationship altogether? Or is sex an isolated aspect of a marriage?
6. Chapter two describes how Florence and Edward met; the first paragraph tells us that they were “too sophisticated to believe in destiny.” How would you characterize the kind of love they developed? What made them believe they were perfect for one another? Are any two people perfect for one another?
7. What did Edward's decision to go to London for college indicate about his goals? What was Florence's dream for her future? Was marriage a greater social necessity for her, as a woman? Would her career as a classical musician necessarily have been sacrificed if she had remained with Edward?
8. Compare Edward's upbringing to Florence's. How did their parents affect their attitudes toward life? How did the limitations of Edward's mother shape his feelings about responsibility and women? Was Florence drawn to her mother's competitiveness?
9. To what extent was the financial gulf between Edward and Florence a source of trouble? How might the relationship have unfolded, particularly during this time period, if Edward, not Florence, had been the spouse with financial security?
10. Chapter four recounts the moment when Edward tells Florence he loves her because she's “square,” not in spite of it. Are their opposing tastes the product of their temperaments or the episodes in their young lives? What is your understanding of her revulsion to sex?
11. Discuss the novel's setting, which forms its title. What is the effect of the creaky hotel McEwan creates, and the crashing permanent waves on a beach where the temperatures are still chilly in June? What does it say about the newlyweds that this is the scene of their wedding night?
12. In the end, Edward explores various “what ifs.” Would their marriage have lasted if he had consented to her request for platonic living arrangements? What are the best ways to predict whether a couple can sustain a marriage?
13. How would Edward and Florence have fared in the twenty-first century? Has the nature of love changed as western society has evolved?
14. The author tells us that the marriage ended because Edward was callous, and that as Florence ran from him, she was at the same time desperately in love with him. Why did Edward respond the way he did? Why was it so difficult for them to be honest about their feelings? How would you have reacted that night?
15. Discuss the structure of On Chesil Beach. What is the effect of reading such a compressed storyline, weaving one night with the years before and after it? How did it shape your reading to see only Edward's point of view in the end? What might Florence's perspective have looked like?
16. In what ways does On Chesil Beach represent a departure for Ian McEwan? In what ways does it enhance the themes in his previous fiction?
—The Washington Post Book World
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach.