ON CHESIL BEACH
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 208 pages, $22
As far as I can tell, there’s not a single weak sentence in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. O.K., it’s a very short novel and we’re cruising familiar territory—love gone wrong—but I still think it’s worthwhile pausing to say “Bravo!” Mr. McEwan’s writing is subtle, intricate, measured, accurate, engaging. It smacks of quiet confidence: Sure he’s good, but there’s no need to boast about it. He has dispensed with the pyrotechnics on display in earlier novels—the dismemberment in The Innocent (1990), say, or the balloon accident in Enduring Love (1998); without a wink or a nudge, he lets it be known that he’s at the top of his game and can do exactly as he pleases.
Which is to tag along on the wedding night of Edward and Florence, 22-year-old virgins who are about to discover how little they know about each other. It’s the summer of 1962, and the bride and groom are having their supper in a cramped sitting room in their seaside hotel; the four-poster wedding bed is plainly visible through the bedroom door. They’re both excruciatingly aware of what comes next: Edward is worried about his performance, specifically the humiliating prospect of “arriving too soon”; Florence is worried because she loathes the whole idea of sexual contact: “[W]henever her thoughts turned toward a close embrace—she preferred no other term—her stomach tightened dryly, she was nauseous at the back of her throat.”
The structure of the novel is simple: We begin on that charged evening in mid-July, 1962; loop back for biographical background on the happy couple (Edward plans to become an historian, Florence a concert violinist); move into the bedroom, achieve partial nudity and a state of crisis; loop back once more to learn about their courtship; suffer through several more hours of wedding-night disaster; and finally, in a brief coda, swiftly traverse four decades to bring the story into the present day.
Art is tidy, lives are messy.
AS I READ ON CHESIL BEACH, I heard snatches of Philip Larkin poems, and also Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” seems almost to sum up the action:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me).…
Up till then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Edward and Florence haven’t enjoyed the benefits of the sexual revolution. They are “bottled up with all the things they did not know how to say or dared not do.” And, of course, they’re English: “[T]hey were too polite, too constrained …. [A] blanket of companionable near-silence … smothered their differences and blinded them as much as it bound them.” The Pill is still a rumor, talk therapy a fringe activity favored by foreigners.