On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Book cover of
Book cover via Amazon

On of the millions of rather famous writers who I had never quite got around to reading was Ian McEwan.  But when I saw his slim novel/novella On Chesil Beach for sale at a local library for a dollar I couldn’t resist.  And its very slimness enticed me to go ahead and read it this past week.  It turned out to be a little gem of a book; a skillful and multilayered work despite its brevity.

With a book this short there is not much point in long plot explanations.  The story centers on the 1962 honeymoon night of Edward and Florence.  Edward’s desire for the consummation of the marriage is at nearly unhealthy levels.  Florence occupies the opposite end of the spectrum: she views the impending act with horror and disgust and would give nearly anything to avoid it.  As the tension of this builds and the night unfolds, McEwan fills in the background of how the couple came to this point.

This much noted quote captures both McEwan’s skill and a critical element of the story:

And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all.

Although McEwan handles what might be called the psychology and sociology of sex very well, the book isn’t just about the hidden dangers of two virgins approaching sex for the first time on their wedding night in early 1960’s England.  It is about the unique period post-war where old mores and traditions were still in place even as the future holds radical changes.  It is about how one’s upbringing, personality, culture, and history impacts their perception, expectations, and relationships in a myriad of ways.  It is about how seemingly small decisions can reverberate through our lives in unexpected ways.  It is a novel of manners, a comedy of errors, and a horror story all at once.  It is about all of this and more.

McEwan offers pleasure for both those who like to explore psychological realism and for those who like to enjoy carefully crafted sentences.  And given its brevity its rewards easily outweigh the time required to read it.

Some interesting quotes from other reviews below:

Jonathan Lethem gets to the heart of the book:

The bulk of “On Chesil Beach” consists of a single sex scene, one played, because of the novel’s brevity and accessibility, in something like “real time.” Edward and Florence have retreated, on their wedding night, to a hotel suite overlooking Chesil Beach. Edward wants sex, Florence is sure she doesn’t. The situation is miniature and enormous, dire and pathetic, tender and irrevocable. McEwan treats it with a boundless sympathy, one that enlists the reader even as it disguises the fact that this seeming novel of manners is as fundamentally a horror novel as any McEwan’s written, one that carries with it a David Cronenberg sensitivity to what McEwan calls “the secret affair between disgust and joy.” That horror is located in the distance between two selves, two subjectivities: humans who will themselves to be “as one,” and fail miserably.

He then uses the book to explore McEwan’s unique talents:

In the painstaking and microscopic one-night structure of “On Chesil Beach,” McEwan advances his exploration of slowness in fiction (early evidenced in “Black Dogs” and “Amsterdam,” and exemplified in the 24-hour time scheme of “Saturday”). This suggests modernist experiment — not only James and Woolf, but even, in its combination with McEwan’s legendarily “forensic” vocabulary (here we’re greeted by the most instrumental pubic hair in the history of fiction), the chilly Alain Robbe-Grillet. But McEwan’s tone is more normative than that of his forebears, and it may be worth asking: Why doesn’t he feel like a “late” modernist? And what does he feel like instead?

The answer may lie in the fact that modernism in fiction was partly spurred by the appearance of two great rivals to the novel’s authority, psychoanalysis and cinema — one a rival at plumbing depths, the other at delineating surfaces. McEwan, who comes along later, shrugs at such absolutist contests, and has for that matter already engulfed (most brilliantly in “Enduring Love”) the latest challenger to the novel’s throne: neurology. In fact, McEwan may in retrospect be seen as the quintessential example of the recent integration of scientific interest into fiction, precisely because in McEwan (as opposed to, say, Richard Powers) such matters cease to be in any way remarkable.

Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe also notes an aspect that I found interesting:

“On Chesil Beach” is as merciful to its characters as it is merciless in its heartbreak. Their bruised pasts and querulous hopes unfold beautifully through the novel, almost destined to collide and then fade into the sorrow of real life. Marvelously realized and treacherously conceived, the story might as well be called “Out of Innocence” — but even that would be a lie, since the innocence to which they cling has long been more camouflage than shelter.

John Freeman calls it oddly beautiful:

But it is oddly beautiful, even when describing an event that is sweet and sad and rather ugly, all at the same time. The aftermath of the night plays out quickly, and it is a wonder to watch as McEwan lengthens his sentences to signal hindsight, then gradually closes them down, like a fist, to suggest the diminishment of opportunity.

Jonathan Yardley offers high praise in the Washington Post:

On Chesil Beach is more a novella than a novel, weighing in at around 40,000 words, but like those other books it is in no important sense a miniature. Instead, it takes on subjects of universal interest — innocence and naiveté, self-delusion, desire and repression, opportunity lost or rejected — and creates a small but complete universe around them. McEwan’s prose is as masterly as ever, here striking a remarkably subtle balance between detachment and sympathy, dry wit and deep compassion. It reaffirms my conviction that no one now writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan’s accomplishment.

Given all of the above I think I will try to find the time to read more McEwan.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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