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Book Review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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Every year Literary Review, a London journal, hands out its infamous “Bad Sex” award. This dubious honor highlights bad writing about (mostly) good sex. But if an award were given for good writing about (mostly) bad sex, Ian McEwan would win it hands down for his latest effort On Chesil Beach.

McEwan has merely dabbled in erotic writing before. The library scene in Atonement may have been steamy, but it was the shortest coupling in English fiction since the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am episode in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In McEwan’s last novel, Saturday, a young woman in London undresses, but merely to recite a Matthew Arnold poem. (Ah, life must be different across the Big Pond!) But now McEwan devotes an entire novel to a honeymoon night gone terribly astray.

An interesting conceit underpins McEwan’s tale. He sets his novel in the period immediately before the sexual revolution. On a summer evening in 1962 two newlyweds, Edward and Florence, finish their awkward dinner at a hotel on the Dorset coast, and anticipate the first night of their honeymoon with mixed emotions. Both are virgins, and each has reasons for anxiety.

Edward is shy, inexperienced and nervous about his ignorance of amatory matters. He worries about his self-control and the risk of, in his words, “arriving too soon.” But at least Edward has a fair amount of enthusiasm for the night ahead, which is more than one can say for his spouse. Florence views the approaching event with fear and repulsion. Her only source of guidance is a handbook, whose illustrations, cheery tone and exclamation points serve merely to sharpen her apprehension.

McEwan takes this simple set-up, and works wonders with it. Over the course of almost two hundred pages, he charts the ebb and flow of the couple’s wedding night with extraordinary deftness. He avoids all the pitfalls inherent in this story, which could easily lapse into cheap irony or crude comedy, and instead crafts a story rich in psychological insight and deep compassion for his characters – compassion that the reader comes to share.

Artfully juxtaposing his narrative of the honeymoon night with flashbacks and recollections, McEwan brings his two characters to life. Florence, the child of an affluent Oxford family, is a violinist with great aspirations for her ensemble, a string quartet, which she cajoles and prods with an intensity and self-confidence that is noticeably lacking in other spheres of her life. Edward is the child of a primary school headmaster and a brain-damaged woman whose mood swings and memory lapses perhaps contribute to his own unstable temperament. During his teenage years, he gets into street brawls on the slightest pretext, but eventually discovers a passion for medieval history that may point the way to a future career, or perhaps only to a temporary escape from the gritty realities of his day-to-day life.

McEwan ranks among our greatest living novelists, but though I count myself among his admirers, I sometimes find fault in his plots, which tend to rely heavily on unlikely coincidences and all-too-clever twists and turns. He is the master of the surprise ending, but sometimes the astonishment – as in works such as Amsterdam or Saturday – is achieved in a manner that is forced and unconvincing. But in On Chesil Beach, McEwan dispenses with the flashy and dazzling effects, and succeeds through sheer poise, intelligence and solid writing. His tale of Edward and Florence will surely rank among his finest works.

The reader can see — perhaps even better than these two naïve souls — how this couple might overcome their differences and the challenges of their conjugal union. But they are bedeviled by their emotions, their innocence and, above all, their inability to talk frankly about their situation and expectations. In truth, McEwan has done something quite difficult here. With his mastery of words, he has depicted how our lives can unravel through the words we are afraid to say, the crises we refuse to acknowledge.

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About Ted Gioia

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    A stellar review as usual, Ted.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • mark

    I will agree with you on all fronts. However, the ending was pathetic. Dreadful. What was he doing? It’s like McEwen didn’t know how to get out. If you drop the ending, it’s wonderful.