On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese, 208 pp.
CLR [rating:4]


Set in 1962, On Chesil Beach evokes a repressive England still trapped in post war gloom and only nods to the beginning of a new, freer decade. This is a relatively short novel, divided into five chapters, and is a condensed insight into a relationship that is founded on misunderstanding and reticence. It begins with Florence and Edward dining on the first night of their honeymoon, and this stays as the main focus of the plot. Florence comes dangerously close to adhering to the stereotypical definition of an English man or woman, that is, frigid and repressed, but McEwan just manages to swerve away from this by giving glimpses of her thoughts and memories.

Repression, fear and even loathing run through her mind as she braces herself for what is to come after their meal. We are told in the first sentence that they are ‘young, educated and both virgins’ and she is unwilling to alter this state. Her only knowledge of sex is derived from a manual and she has convinced herself that she is without desire. Edward chooses to be unaware of her fears and the gap between them widens further as they struggle to talk about their emotions. The distance between this newly-married couple, who believably claim to love each other, is exposed as their worries are revealed just to the reader for the first four chapters.

The extensive reasons for their failure to talk about sex are listed with a dry tone: ‘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.’ This sly wit is used occasionally to undercut the sad desperation implied by their situation and reminds us of McEwan’s ability to be succinct in his appraisals of characters and situations.

Sex, and the failure to have it, is the main story, but the descriptions and memories of their respective families are also vital elements. Florence’s mother is depicted as cold and unapproachable and Edward’s mother is brain-damaged after a train door slammed open against her head. These back stories are brought in to help flesh out the uncomfortable present, but, in keeping with the content of sexual repression, the reader is left with the feeling that much of Florence and Edward’s lives are still left unconsidered or unspoken.

Perhaps the lasting memory of this work will be the way it snips away at the assumption that the 1960s were a time of free love and promiscuity. There is always a problem considering a period in generalized terms; for example, the use of ‘roaring twenties’ entails that we overlook the Wall Street crash. Therefore, by focusing on one night in 1962, the narrative prompts us to remember how strong the legacy of the Victorian era was, and how disabling it is to be a good, middle class gal in any decade.

Although Florence and Edward are seen to be divided by their received morals, this is also described as a time of impending changes as these children begin to question the previous generation’s belief in the British Empire and weapons of mass destruction. The break from the past has not been made entirely, but it is broached when they first meet at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament talk and they are at least allowed to have a symbolic union of minds.

This novel marks an interesting return to form for McEwan after the disappointing Saturday. Similar concerns are on view in both novels, as the English middle classes are investigated for their crimes against hypocrisy and smugness, but whereas Saturday was too sympathetic to middle-class and middle-aged angst to be engaging, On Chesil Beach is almost as incisive as some of his earlier works. Evaluation depends on one’s taste, of course, but this is more grown up and is certainly kinder than previous novels such as The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs. To claim that it is kinder is not to say it is better or worse, but it does possibly sound like an insult. Perhaps it is more accurate to argue that this has a maturity which may or may not have come with age.

This also differs from each of the previous novels as McEwan has refrained from using a pivotal moment to change a character’s life for ever. This technique has been used in the past to jolt the readers out of their complacency and to propel an unwitting character into a catastrophe (remember poor Robbie in Atonement?). Instead, this is as reticent and repressed as its central characters and is a convincing example of McEwan’s prowess for any of his first-time readers. It is a warning against ignorance and plaintively shows the consequences of emotional dishonesty.

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