On Chesil Beach (2007)

By Ian McEwan

Plot: English virgin newlyweds endure the trials, excitements, and uncertainties of their wedding night in 1962. Read the full book blurb here.

My love affair with Ian McEwan's books began by chance. I don't even remember how I came to pick up Enduring Love--likely, at the main branch in Cincinnati on their new release shelves--but I did. And I loved it. Amsterdam blew my head open, and then I thought I was ready for Atonement. Not even close. Nothing comes close to Atonement. I have not read his entire back catalog because, much like Helen Dunmore's work, the mental strain of his complex, psychologically difficult books makes for the most stressful and rewarding reads.

I consumed On Chesil Beach with gusto, a book so different from the romances I have been submerged in for months. More substantial? Maybe just more delicate? Insightful? And brave. McEwan pulls no punches. He caters to no sweet sensibilities. But I knew that going in and expected anything but a happy ending. (Watch, like Dunmore's The Siege, that'll be his next, unexplored territory.)

Two virgins on their wedding night. How simple? But the complexity of these two characters creates the tension. She is repulsed by physical contact. In 1962, what respectable young woman with a distant mother would have the language to express her disgust? He is a man inferior to her in station, eager, eager for sex. But he doesn't want to seem rude or pushy or low.

McEwan's technique flies in the face of all genre storytelling rules. And I don't mean "rules," but Rules--things that garner nasty comments from editors, such as massive blobs of backstory, drastic POV issues to the point where they live inside each others' heads and right alongside McEwan's omniscient narration, and a near complete lack of dialogue. The dialogue is as stilted and uncomfortable as they are, uncertain, and their only significant verbal exchange comes at the beach climax.

But to be honest, I don't know how this story could have been told any other way. It is tight, smart, observant, and intensely subtle. The unfailing optimism of the opening scene fades with slow, almost imperceptible gentleness toward flecks of criticism, discontent, and disillusionment. The climactic argument is long in coming but inevitable. The signposts are there.


And speaking of subtle, how's this for a fake out: he doesn't talk about the obvious. Yes, Florence was likely molested. The clues are almost transparent, yet to any early 21st century mind, her frigidity and relationship with her father are obvious markers of sexual abuse. But again, this is 1962. Who talked about that? No one, and neither does McEwan. He leaves it as a slight trail of evidence toward her character, one that is never brought to light nor discussed. It just IS, and it's outside the scope of their understanding--and thus outside the scope of the narrative.

One particularly scene plays well to people like me, fans of McEwan's who have read many of his earlier, more macabre books where characters' lives change in a split instant of rash behavior. On the beach, angry, Edward picks up a rock. Of course, knowing McEwan, I expected the mistake to be a sudden fit of rage. Edward would finally succumb to his frustrations and lapse into the angry, rural fighter he used to be. A death on the beach. The heartbreak of a sudden loss. But no. Edward tosses the rock into the ocean. It is gone, along with his anger. And within the resultant resignation, his lack of passion and anger, Edward plants the seed of his failure with Florence.

Brilliant. Subtle. Not at all what I expected, which is really where McEwan shines.


Emil said...

After reading the reviews, it seems very interesting. I will add this to my book collection. Just curious how the story will end... Hope it could be the right novel I read in my spare time.

Katie said...

On Chesil Beach is one of my favorite novels. It is interesting to read. No wonder if this novel was selected for the 2007 Booker Prize shortlist.