While I usually try not to give away too much of a book, in this case I had to go into detail in order to offer a proper review. So you could consider this one to be spoilerous, even though, as you read this book, you'll probably sense from the get go how this one will end.
On Chesil Beach
First published in: 2007
This edition: Vintage 2008
Genre: fiction, drama
Cover photography by Chris Fraser Smith; design by Suzanne Dean
So far this year, the book I have underestimated the most is, without question, ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan. Set in England in 1962, this sad, short novel is about young newlyweds (married only that morning) anxiously preparing for the inevitable 'next moment' in the rites of marriage: their wedding night.
I'll be honest and admit that my attitude as I started reading the novel was unsure and tentative; the phrase 'slightly dull' was prominent in my early notetaking. I even wrote down, and this is literally quoted from my notes: "Doubt I'll rec this one. It seems… insignificant. Wow. McEwan, insignificant. Sounds wrong…"
Next I'll admit that I did have it all wrong. I thought this book would be empty, without meaning. Several pages in, I didn't think I would feel anything in the end. Where was McEwan going with this one? ON CHESIL BEACH can easily be mistaken to be only an angsty cliche about The First Time. Allow me to demonstrate that it's more than that.
The word 'angst' doesn't do this one justice: ON CHESIL BEACH is devastating. The reader senses early on that in this book, sadness will prevail as the ruling evoked emotion.
"Almost strangers, they stood, strangely together, on a new pinnacle of existence, gleeful that their new status promised to promote them out of their endless youth – Edward and Florence, free at last!"
Florence (22) and Edward (23) – our newlyweds – are both under a lot of pressure, but only because they perceive themselves to be. They are now married and by all standards considered (or believe themselves) to be adults, but their new marital status only emphasizes how young they really are still, how unprepared, how wholly immature. They rejoice at being 'free' to do what they want, but they really aren't.
The evening begins in their hotel room, at the Dorset coast. McEwan masterfully describes the moments leading up to the inevitable; the tension is almost unbearable. Edward and Florence take their flavourless dinner in their room. The pressure increases with every bite. The reader almost feels like an intruder.
Meanwhile there are flashbacks that help us understand more about Florence and Edward as individuals (how they grew up) and as a couple (how they met). It helps us understand this particular evening.
"Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness."
Florence experiences physical disgust at the prospect of having to sleep with Edward, but she doesn't explain to him why. The reader gets (predictable yet) subtle hints as to what causes this resistance, so we know and understand, but Edward couldn't possibly. He just thinks she's frigid and tormenting him after a long wait.
Edward thinks (as did many men in those days), "She's my wife now" and infuriatingly believes he has a right to her (so give it up this instant, Florence). But there's another side to Edward: naturally he's scared in the way many men are when intimate with women. But instead of revealing himself to be afraid, Edward also keeps his insecurities to himself.
ON CHESIL BEACH isn't about eroticism; when McEwan describes sexual interactions it's in the context of fear, misunderstanding and that unavoidable social convention, which dictates that one isn't to talk about sex.
The only way I can put it is that Florence and Edward don't know each other intimately enough, emotionally; they are thus unable to be truly intimate, physically. It's a vicious cycle serving only to increase the distance between two people.
So instead of being truly independent, Florence and Edward both allow themselves to get caught up in a hopeless protocol (The Wedding Night must happen now and we're not allowed to discuss it amongst ourselves) as if it's in a rulebook somewhere, instead of allowing themselves, and each other, time. And true freedom.
The reader becomes irritated with their own, mutual sabotage, but more so realizes that it's too late anyway: Florence and Edward are doomed from the moment they said their I do's. Not only because their behaviour is strangely reminiscent of that of children who mess around with adult matters as if it's one exciting adventure, but also because they aren't open with each other. Because they're not brave enough.
Here I was thinking I wouldn't feel anything, but I actually cried when I reached the ending, wondering why I was surprised at my emotional response. After all, McEwan's ATONEMENT had really made the tears roll down my blotchy cheeks a few years earlier.
Lack of communication, lack of patience, lack of trust – together make for this heartbreaking story… Its 'rushed' ending was effective in that I felt the sadness even more this way.
"All she needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them."
The saddest part about ON CHESIL BEACH is that the reader knows that these two young people love each other very much. The devastating part is the realisation that the sexual revolution in the sixties was only a heartbeat away. If only they'd met a little later.
…if only they'd been brave. A loss is sincerely felt. Regret is palpable. Such a pity.
Much like some matters of the heart, On Chesil Beach is a book which requires a gentle approach and patience. Without this, there cannot be understanding.
R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008-2010 (and beyond)