On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan,
published by Jonathan Cape, £12.99.
Enthusiastic followers of Ian McEwan’s
works will seize upon his latest offering
On Chesil Beach with anticipation and relish.
After all, he has staked a strong claim to be
one of our most talented novelists with
some ten novels and two collections of
stories to his credit. These include Booker
Prize-winning Amsterdam, as well as
Enduring Love and the splendid Atonement.
The first disappointment is the slim size of
this new book, released in April in hardback.
The second is the even thinner plot which
can be summarised as a couple on the first
night of their honeymoon; both virgins; he
eager; she terrified: failure; immediate falling
out: never to be reconciled.
Those who read his previous novel,
Saturday, will recall that McEwan limited
the story to the events of one day, a ploy
which worked surprisingly well. Sadly this
one, which is restricted to a mere couple
of hours, does not, at least for this reviewer.
By contrast, the plot of Atonement was
splendid and frankly in a totally different
class. No one could deny that the author
is a brilliant writer, but here he has surely
wasted an opportunity to build his
reputation yet higher.
This is a longish short story rather than
‘a masterwork of quite remarkable depth,
power and poignancy, by a writer at the
height of his powers’ as his publishers claim.
Of course, it is for the individual to make
up his or her own mind.
But Chesil Beach was for me an
unfulfilling, unconvincing and disappointing
study of two young people, whose apparently
loving relationship is destroyed in a split
second due to sexual failure.
Let us hope for a more considered
follow-up by so capable an author.
LENI: the Life & Work of Leni Riefenstahl
by Steven Bach, published by Little,
Brown, £25. ISBN 978-0316861113
Leni Riefenstahl had an inauspicious start to
life. A plumber’s daughter in one of Berlin’s
tougher industrial suburbs, she showed
considerable resourcefulness surviving the
hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, firstly
selling picture postcards in tourist cafes,
then as a professional dancer and later as an
actress, where she developed an interest in
filming. Such resource, combined with a
ruthless ambition, remained with her until
her death in 2002, at the age of 101.
By the mid-1930s, Riefenstahl had
successfully ingratiated herself with Hitler
and become the most celebrated film-maker
in the Third Reich, using the century’s most
powerful art form to glorify a dictator whose
policies were to lead to the death of millions.
In this fascinating book, Bach attempts
to address the question of her culpability in
promoting the Third Reich and the extent
to which she was exploited. Was she a
monster whose idealised picture of the Nazi
regime justified its excesses, or was she an
artist merely practicing her craft in
This book goes a long way to smashing
any preconceptions of her innocence and in
casting huge doubt on her continuous claims
after the war that she hadn’t been a Nazi.
She was, like so many of her fellow
countrymen, totally taken in by Hitler.
When she read Mein Kampf, she declared
it was ‘beautiful’ and that fascism was the
way forward. Later, at a Nazi rally in 1932,
she had her first sight of the Führer and
declared it was ‘like being struck by
lightning…an almost apocalyptic vision’.
A year later her film, Victory of Faith,
was celebrating the Nazi rise to power at the
Nuremberg rally. Many more films glorifying
Hitler followed and brought Riefenstahl
both fame and considerable fortune.
Bach shows Riefenstahl little sympathy
and recounts a number of examples of her
complicity in some of the regime’s most
savage policies. In September 1939, her
special film unit, financed by the Reich,
was on hand to record the conquest of
Poland and, in one Polish town, she
witnessed the killing of 30 Jewish civilians,
who had been forced by German soldiers
to dig their own graves.
Although she denied being present,
snapshots by a German soldier show she was
there. It is just one of the many examples
which put an end to any thoughts the reader
might have that Leni Riefenstahl was merely
a victim of history.
Four Weeks in May: The Loss of HMS
Coventry – A Captain’s Story by David
Hart Dyke, published by Atlantic Books.
£18.99. ISBN 978-84354-590-3
The 25th anniversary of the Falklands War
has been celebrated with a wide choice of
new and reprinted titles covering every
aspect of that memorable conflict. Of these,
Four Weeks in May, the story of HMS
Coventry’s war, demands particular attention.
David Hart Dyke, the Captain of
Coventry, has recorded the events leading
up to the sinking of his ship, the details
of the traumatic events of 25 May 1982 and
the aftermath, with candour and skill. It is
understandable why, unlike others, he did
not rush into print, preferring to wait a
quarter of a century.
First, one suspects that it has taken him
many years to place matters in their true
perspective. He was himself burnt when
two bombs exploded deep in his ship (and
another failed to) and, by his own admission,
he was psychologically scarred, but time has
proved a great healer.
One moment he was responsible for a
modern warship and over 200 highly skilled
men – ten minutes later he and the survivors
were fighting for their lives and the Coventry
had capsized. She sank the next day, and
19 men died and others were injured,
The vacuum that the loss of Coventry
left in his life was clearly cataclysmic, and he
became no more than a passenger shuttled
between various ships in the Task Force
before returning home on the QE2. It
would, however, be quite wrong to imply
this is a sorry tale. On the contrary, his story
is a proud one.
Four Weeks in May is more than a personal
account although, with the inclusion of
correspondence between the author and his
stalwart wife, it is certainly that. It also paints
a graphic picture of preparation for war,
with the author overcoming his misgivings.
For some, his treatment may be a touch
too emotional, but there is no denying the
sincerity and genuine attachment of the
author to his crew and ship. The action is
conveyed superbly by the use of numerous
individual accounts, which testify to many
acts of great courage.
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