A beach honeymoon amid shifting sands
On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday.
203 pp. $22
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
For The Inquirer (3 June 2007)
In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan returns to the novella, a form in which he is a master. His first published works were short stories, often sinister vignettes whose unsettling power lay in their sense of oppressive atmosphere. Since those early days, of course, McEwan has written 10 full-length novels, most notably The Child in Time and Atonement, powerful, rich narratives featuring eventual healing and redemption after seemingly unbearable loss and despair.
McEwan's last novel, Saturday, was not typical of his work. It was a consciously uplifting response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 - almost a technical exercise, limited to describing the events of a single day. One of its most memorable aspects was the description of the purchase, preparation and cooking of a fish stew, recipe available at the author's official Web site.
On Chesil Beach is a world apart from such literary devices, being on the surface a straightforward, even mundane narrative in which little happens. Yet the whole is infused with a bitter poignancy. It is completely absorbing. Even if not exactly designed to be read in one sitting, that is how it ought to be read, since doing so enables one to better join its brief interlude of intensity.
The framework is the youth and courtship, culminating in the wedding, of Edward and Florence in 1962 England. Rationing was a recent memory, youth was nascently emerging as a culture, World War II was the main influence on moral attitudes at all levels of society. I was born in England 10 years after Edward and Florence, and remember how the war dominated my childhood: in comics, books, movies, newspapers and conversations all around. Life was austere for most people: Eating out was a rare treat; books were mainly borrowed from the library; clothes were not fashion items but were bought to last; people did not buy expensive items until they could "save up" the money. A national mood of serious endeavor was firmly entrenched. McEwan has set his story when the country was at a point of balance: Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of the day, famously used the words "you've never had it so good" to describe this boring, drab England (how we smile at the phrase from our modern, jaded perspective). For the swinging '60s were about to burst on the scene: Change of government, hippiedom, personal gratification, French cuisine, the new wave, the Pill, and the materialism enabled by Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" were all just around the corner.
The time of this balance point in society is also the balance point in the relationship between Edward and Florence - on their honeymoon night, to be precise, in a Dorset hotel on Chesil Beach. Their small-scale story is told amid reflections on politics, sexual attitudes and social mores, perfectly capturing the peculiarly British repression and embarrassment of the time. One gets to know the characters as children, their parents, their social class, and where they lived all influencing their dreams and personalities.
The innocence of the postwar country, at the tipping point of change, is mirrored in the innocence of both main characters and their separate anticipation of their wedding-night deflowering. Florence is a musician, who can lose herself only when playing her violin. Edward's particular sensitivity lies in his response to the beauty of nature: wild flowers, birds and the natural world - feelings he represses under a veneer of "manliness."
Before their wedding, Edward and Florence have each arrived at a personal way to feel their emotions in the coded era in which they live. They each have their own personal ambitions, born perhaps out of frustration, but nevertheless, dreams. Edward wants to write about characters from history who briefly appeared, had a strong impact on one event, but then faded out. This strange interest is the key to his character. Florence has always been politely rejected by her mother, an Oxford academic of "progressive" tendencies, and has an ambiguous relationship with her businessman father. She's a timid, neat and well-behaved girl, but when she plays her violin or directs her string quartet, Edward observes her metamorphosis into a vibrant and confident being. Can each of these rather sad young people transduce their individual adaptive, private certainties into emotional intelligence: open honesty about their own feelings with each other? In what direction will the scales tip, balanced as they are that night on the unstable, shifting pebbles of the beach?
This short book is intense and powerful, particularly so at the end, when, in the fullness of time, one character can finally understand the cost and effect of the night on Chesil Beach, and see what could have happened if different words had been said or different actions taken. It is here, in the reflections of the older person looking back to the youth within, that we experience the insight of the story. It is no exaggeration to say that the book is a masterpiece - in miniature, maybe, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
Maxine Clarke is an editor at the science journal Nature. Read her blog Petrona.