Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book…

…it’s not often that a book moves me to such personal, vicious anger that I start to cry. That I rage, rage against something that offends and wounds me to my very core. That makes me want to scream at its pages, gnash my teeth and pull my hair like some kind of deranged madman.

While I have liked previous novels by McEwan — specifically Atonement — I don’t actively seek out his books. I had never heard of this one until it was softly recommended to me by someone close; I say it was a “soft recommendation” because it was more like this person really wanted my take on it.

You see, I am demisexual — I identify on the asexual (or, ace) spectrum, and the female character of this novel, Florence, is said to be asexual. Representation of asexuals is rare — hell, even getting recognized as part of the LGBTQIA spectrum (we’re the “A”, if you haven’t guessed) can be a struggle, as the “A” is frequently mistaken for “Ally” (it’s not). I have been called “too queer to be straight” and, by others, “not gay enough to be queer.” Now, look, I’m not going to sit and bemoan everyone with a “woe is me” story because I don’t have any angst over my own sexuality. I am demisexual and that’s that. I shrug and move on and don’t expect it to change people’s opinion of me because my sexual preference doesn’t define me as a human being.

With that in mind, I went into this novel with an element of trepidation. About 1% of the world population identifies on the ace spectrum, and if any of them have had my experience in trying to talk to people about it…there’s a lot of either misunderstanding of just full on lack of knowledge as it pertains to the topic. I, for example, have been explicitly asked, “How do you know if you’ve never had sex?” How do I know? Because I have no interest in sex; my body does not respond to the idea of sex and it never has — well, okay, it has once, and it was with a person for whom I had a long-standing, emotionally intimate relationship. Hence, the demisexual self-identification. But asking someone that question is like asking someone who is heterosexual, “How do you know if you’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend?” You know. It is not a choice, it just is.

Florence in this novel may be asexual…but McEwan has also made her a victim of previous sexual abuse. This in and of its self wouldn’t necessarily be a “problem” if it weren’t for the way in which McEwan so completely intertwines these two things. Florence isn’t just asexual — uninterested in sex — she has physical reactions to the very thought of it. She is very literally repulsed by the idea, which McEwan frequently describing her lips curling in disgust, her having feelings of nausea, squeamishness, and pure dread. And this is just at the thought of sex.

“…her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.”

That is not asexuality. That is a trauma response. There is a very clear, very distinct difference between not feeling sexual attraction (or, as in the case of the gray-A/demisexual community, maybe feeling it only after a long period of deep emotional intimacy), and being actively repulsed by or downright afraid of the idea of sex to the point that you feel sick.

One of these things is a sexual identity…the other is a trauma response. They are not the same thing, nor will they ever be the same thing.

Again, it is possible to have both. I’m not saying that asexuals cannot experience sexual trauma and, therefore, experience completely valid PTSD as a result. Sexual assault, sexual trauma are valid reasons to have negative reactions to sex.

But in the execution of this story, McEwan’s interweaving of what should be two wholly unrelated things creates a sinister case of implied causation that made me uncomfortable and so blisteringly angry that I completely lost my composure. Because it implies that Florence is, in some way, “broken” — she certainly believes that about herself, and while I’m willing to go, “Okay. It’s a period piece, so there was a different mentality” and not be up in arms over that, I will be frustrated that this is the kind of representation my spectrum has.

For a group that is so wholly underrepresented, this is not the representation I want or need. We don’t need something that implies that, because I uninterested in sex, it is because of some kind of trauma and that, in not desiring sex, I am somehow defective.

Because I am not broken. I am not defective. My lack of interest in sex is not due to some kind of horrific past trauma, and to imply such is downright insulting.

Had McEwan completely abandoned the trauma/PTSD angle and every response related to that, perhaps this could have been an interesting story of a couple that falls apart because the guy can’t understand the girl’s asexuality. After all, at the end of it, Florence (apparently) goes off to live a very full and rich life; it’s all telegraphed to us through her now-ex-husband’s perspective, so we see, too, that he is left with nothing.

If nothing else, the prose is evocative. But then again, pretty prose does not necessarily speak to the content. And while I don’t think everything I’ve critiqued was necessarily McEwan’s intent, it is unfortunate that the ending — which should have been this great moment of empowerment — is undercut by everything that precedes it. The empowerment of the final pages is far too tinged in my own bitterness and bile at everything that led to it.

It was a valiant effort, and there are time when McEwan seems to “get it,” as it were…but they are few and they are far between, inextricably linked with something darker to the point it’s oftentimes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins…and I am ace.

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Review: Lord of Shadows

 

Lord of Shadows
Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every. Time.

Every single time I go into one of these books, I tell myself that I am beyond this. That, yes, this is my personal crack and I accept it, but that I am no longer the kind of person who can be moved by this.

And yet every damn time I end a book internally screaming — good or bad? Well…that’s the coin I’m always flipping. In this case it’s screaming that’s technically good — I mean, the reasons were quite tragic (of course they were), but the fact that I was emotionally moved means that I was invested.

Well, for most of it. As usual, there are things I do and do not like. I went into this second novel in The Dark Artifices series very apprehensive. The previous novel, Lady Midnight ended with the introduction of a trope that I absolutely loathe: the “I need to make this person not be in love with me so let’s pretend we’re in love and fake-date” trope. Truly, there are not enough words in the English langue to express how much I hate this trope. That being said…it was done better than I expected. Did I like it? Absolutely not. But the way in which Clare handled the trope and quasi-wrapped it up made it at least barely palatable. I could deal with it, even amidst my constant annoyed groaning and rolling of eyes.

Emma is proving to be a weaker protagonist that I would have wished — I honestly believe that Clare peaked with Tessa Gary in the Infernal Devices series, and her other female leads, for me, do not hold a candle to what was done there. Her parabatai, Julian, however, is such a strong character. He’s well-written, well-developed, and well-motivated. This is a teenage boy who had to grow up fast and early, who has been both brother and father and Institute head since he was far too young to be doing any of that. Do I just want happiness and peace for this boy? You bet your ass I do. I care about this poor, artistic child more than I do his companion, but I think that, in liking Julian, I find myself a little more warmed to Emma. Seeing her through his eyes gives me an element of perspective. Do I think that makes Emma a stronger character? Not necessarily, but it does make constantly reading her a little better.

Speaking of characters, let’s talk about some of the other children we got here. So many children, so little time. Actually, not true — this book is a tome and so we spend a lot of time with our wide array of characters. I will say that one of the best additions to this cast was little Kit, our lost Herondale. He’s definitely the outsider and offers, again, a good perspective on everything going on in the LA Institute. But what’s best is his friendship with Ty — those two going around as “Sherlock and Watson” was so sweet and so pure…my heart just swells thinking about it. I also appreciate how the introduction of Kit allows for some understanding into the sharp divide between the world of the Shadowhunters and the mundane world, especially as it pertains to health and medicine. Ty is seen as “odd” to his family and other Shadowhunters, but Kit recognizes immediately that Ty is clearly on the autism spectrum. To him, it’s something that’s common in the mundane world, and yet the Shadowhunters have no perspective on this becuase they have never embraced modern (or “mundane”) medicine. I like seeing how it takes the Shadowhunters down a notch in my perspective, as something like modern medicine seems like it would be obvious, and yet they don’t seem to have a system for it because “If you can heal physical wounds with an iratze why bother with anything else, right?”

This also explains further the tragic life of Uncle Arthur, who’s mind was “broken” in Faerie. Yes, clearly there was fae magic involved, but his symptoms best exhibit what we’d look at and call Alzheimer’s. At least, that’s what I was always inferring when they spoke of his periods of lucidity versus his periods where he didn’t necessarily know who/where/what/when he was. Oh, Arthur…honestly, that character never stood much of a chance, and though I think he could have been treated better, he went out with a modicum of dignity and gallantry that I can’t help but admire.

Speaking of faerie….there are a lot of faeries. It was made pretty clear with Lady Midnight that the fae were going to be playing a large role in this trilogy and I was not necessarily the most excited about that. I’ve said it many times: I am not a huge fan of faeries. It’s not so much that I hate them, more that I’m usually just bored and uninterested by them — often times this ends up turning into annoyance and irritation. And, yeah, I can’t help but think the entire portion of this book set in faerie was the weakest part. So many faeries, so many stupid. fucking. decisions. I cannot get over how blindingly moronic the decisions made by the characters in faerie were. I mean, we were on a level of abject stupidity I don’t think I’ve encountered in a Cassandra Clare book before — or, if I have, I’ve blocked it out. Not only were the decisions poor, but many of the “twist” moments were wholly predictable. I never found myself surprised by things that happened. And I wish that some of the more dramatic moments had hit harder…but the foreshadowing for them and the ridiculousness of the entire thing just killed that.

BUT I will say that, thanks to all this time in faerie and with the far, I have a new ship — and I am captaining this fucking ship until the end of time. I will forever be on this Diana/Gwyn loveboat and you cannot stop me. I mean, from their first interaction, I was on. board. and ready to go. And their entire dynamic is one that I just love. I think, perhaps, it has to do with them being older characters, and, therefore, their interactions are a little different, a little more mature. Yes, they’re courting, as it were, but when they are like “Oh, shit, that’s the blight that’s causing problems,” they rightfully pause and focus on that with a kind of mutual understanding that they’ll get back to their feelings later, when they have a moment. There’s no major angst over it…nothing. Not even when Diana’s “big secret” is revealed — and, let me say, I think it was handled in a very clever way. I was pleasantly surprised by that, and even more pleased, of course, by Gwyn’s kind of non-reaction reaction to it.

Of course, that makes sense: he’s a fae. Why would we hold him to our human standards as it pertains to how he perceives those he wishes to take as a lover/companion? Like…he’s not human.

And that ending. Yeah, that ending was not nice. I read that Cassandra Clare suffered the passing of her stepfather during the writing of Lord of Shadows (my sincerest condolences) and that pain absolutely shows in the finale. Although it was clearly something that had been planned for a while, the raw emotion with which she wrote that…it was like having a hole of grief punched in my heart.

And I think that, realising how much I was caring about these characters, is why I rated this book higher than the previous instalment. Those high points and the emotional impact of some scenes were brighter and stronger than the previous, even if it still suffers a lot of similar problems, and even though there are some things which I’m either apathetic/ambivalent towards or simply annoyed at. And, also, yeah, it could have been several hundred pages shorter.

Yeah, it’s not perfect and, yeah, it’s crack. But it’s my crack and when Clare nails some things…she really can nail them.

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