Review of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, first published in Prospect, April 2007
When John Banville demolished Ian McEwan’s last novel, Saturday, in the New York Review of Books, he reserved particular scorn for the amatory encounters between its main character, Henry Perowne, and his “unfailingly fragrant” wife. How, Banville asked, could we be expected to take seriously this self-satisfied world in which “no one suffers from morning breath, and women long-married wake up every time primed for sex?” Banville will, I suspect, breathe a sigh of relief as he reads On Chesil Beach, which describes a marriage torn apart in its first 24 hours through the agency of premature ejaculation.
This is a glib summary, but not entirely misleading. Like much of McEwan’s best work, On Chesil Beach is structured around the transforming horror of a single moment. Set in July 1962—”not a good moment in the history of English cuisine,” our omniscient narrator dryly notes—the novel follows the fortunes of Edward and Florence, both 22, as they prepare for the ordeal of their wedding night in a Georgian inn overlooking the shingle expanse of Chesil beach. Both they and the society to which they belong are on the cusp of momentous change. The 1960s will soon start swinging, while Edward and Florence are poised to shed their virginities and old identities—the last of that generation for whom “to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.” They are at once too early and too late: desperate to be free of the past and its useless decorums, yet unable to comprehend a present in which youth and pleasure will soon become ends in themselves.
On Chesil Beach is very much a historical novel, in that it is fascinated by the profound differences between even the recent past and the present. Our protagonists live “in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible”; in those days, “being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion.” These ironical interjections by the narrative voice feel awkward at first but, as our engagement with Edward and Florence deepens, they become an instrumental part of McEwan’s technique. Desperate to make a new beginning, his characters are blind to the larger forces shaping their lives. As we gradually realise, by burdening one day with an intolerable weight of expectation, they have snared themselves entirely in the past.
Edward is earnest, rough-hewn and bright, a headmaster’s son from rural Oxfordshire who studied his way into UCL and a first-class history degree before meeting Florence on a chance trip to Oxford. Florence is a shy, brilliant violinist, the daughter of a businessman and a female academic, and dreams of a career performing in London with the string quartet she founded while at college. Their love is genuine, and they are full of plans: yet at the heart of their relationship lies an inscrutable divide which manners and tender words have so far concealed. Edward, with a ferocity that astonishes him, wants to lose his virginity and begin his life as a man. Florence, convinced something is wrong with her physically, is so terrified and disgusted by the prospect of genital contact that she fantasises about becoming pregnant “like the mother of Jesus… by magic.” It is a matter of sex, but also of gender, and of the terrible force with which shame and desire can collide.
McEwan has always been fascinated by the pathological: by mental and physical illness, by incest and violation. The spectre of madness flickers in the wings of On Chesil Beach (a head injury left Edward’s mother brain-damaged when he was a child; his tendency to get into fights suggests another, seductive kind of insanity) but it is also a case of something simpler and more ancient. All through the novel, the body betrays and exposes the self with a grinding friction—between what our protagonists think themselves to be, and the visceral, actual events taking place. Thus, as her husband’s rough kisses prefigure the sexual act, Florence realises she has “stumbled across an empty truth… in deciding to be married, she had agreed to exactly this. She had agreed it was right to do this, and have this done to her… it was this they had put their names to, and all the rest—the supposed maturity, the confetti and cake—was a polite distraction.” Her terror of penetration, our narrator delicately, horribly, suggests, may be related to an abusive secret in her relationship with her father; but it is also something bred by society’s conspiracy of swaggering men and silent women, determined not to give voice to their true fears and needs.
With classical precision, On Chesil Beach is divided into five parts, and it takes four of these for us to progress from supper (“beef in a thickened gravy, soft boiled vegetables, and potatoes of a blueish hue”) to the disastrous act itself. Meticulously, every last shred of awkwardness is wrung out of this anticipation. Yet it is the couple’s conversation on the beach afterwards that forms the novel’s heart—and its most appalling demonstration of the ways in which hurt and bewilderment can turn into the desire to inflict pain on another.
On Chesil Beach is a didactic, ironic novella of great accomplishment and calculated ambition. Structurally and linguistically, it is a triumph; as a piece of social history, it is a skilful reminder of both the importance and the limits of the liberalism Saturday celebrates. Yet it is also an intriguingly compassionate book in which, for all the agonies its characters are put through, there is little of the clinical coldness that marked McEwan’s early work. “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed,” we are told on the final page—”by doing nothing.” It is an absence, here, rendered luminous and painfully beautiful.