I have just finished reading British author, Ian McEwan’s latest novel, On Chesil Beach. I have read two of his novels before – Atonement, which I enjoyed mostly (the middle section languished a little), and Saturday, which I loved. In Saturday, McEwan writes about one family during one event packed day in London. In On Chesil Beach, McEwan bring the focus in even further, concentrating on just one evening and one couple. He doesn’t miss a detail. As McEwan’s writing focusses on a more closely defined moment, his writing seems to get better. There are spoilers in this post.
The setting, Chesil Beach in Dorest, England, is a spit created by the action of the tide over many centuries – long expanse of sand and stones which stretches for 18 miles along the Dorset coastline. It creates numerous lagoons behind the strip of sand and pebbles and it is considered a World Heritage site.
So, a lovely backdrop for a novel. On Chesil Beach is about a young couple, Edward and Florence, on their wedding night, in 1962, who take their honeymoon in a (fictional) guest house near Chesil Beach. 1962 was a time before the sexual revolution and societal freedoms that came at the end of the 1960s. McEwan artfully describes their thoughts and actions that come out of an English stuffiness, some would say, repression. As the couple eat their evening meal on the day of their wedding in the dining room of their private suite in the guest house, their attention is drawn to the bed in the adjoining room. Interspersed with flashbacks from their childhood and courtship, McEwan gives the background that leads to the events to come, fleshing out the characters of the two honeymooners. But it all goes terribly wrong. As expectations are dashed, sexual disappointment is confounded by blame, and the way they react.
There are many ideas in the book, some to do with the sexual freedoms of another age, which McEwan implies lies behind the difficulties. But these could have been overcome had the characters reacted in different ways. Edward chooses to be offended with Florence near the end of the book after she runs out on him. He could be seen as rightly offended, but he chooses not to forgive, but to allow his anger and hurt build up inside him. At the end of the book as Edward looks back on his life, the reader can’t help but wonder if he regretted it. Florence likewise – it could be argued that she was at fault, but then she chooses to run away from her problems. Again, as we hear about her later years. there is that lingering regret.
Granted, the characters are young – dealing with such events like these takes a certain maturity and is always easier in the cold light of day, when emotions are more detached. But both characters, moreso Edward than Florence, had to try and save face in front of each other and we unable to show the humility that would have led to them being reconciled.
I guess, like Atonement, McEwan has described an event which requires forgiveness, but which, within his worldview, is not possible. On finishing the book, I was left with a cold disappointment for what became of the characters. Somehow, It all seemed so avoidable. A wonderfully written book.
BTW: If you want to know what the hissing and clattering of the waves on the stones sound like at Chesil Beach, which McEwan describes well, watch this video: