The thought of “boundless sensual freedom” sparks in Edward’s mind the image of “a vast airy cathedral, ruined perhaps, roofless, fan-vaulted to the skies.” Larkin had the same idea: In “High Windows,” the thought of unconstrained sexuality—“the long slide / To happiness”—has this effect on the poet:
… And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Mr. McEwan staked the improbable ending of Saturday (2005) on “Dover Beach,” and in his new novel we have the setting of Arnold’s poem very nearly replicated: a couple by a window giving out onto the English Channel; the waves breaking on the beach—on the “infinite shingle”—bringing in, in Arnold’s famous phrase, the “eternal note of sadness.”
Edward and Florence love each other—therein lies the virtue of Mr. McEwan’s novel, and its limitations. He has created a pair of characters we can believe in wholeheartedly, and he’s shown how they mesh, and how they don’t. He slips gracefully in and out of their thoughts, exposes in slow motion the choreography of their fumbling caresses. Omniscient and dispassionate, he tracks love in action, plotting in high-definition detail how it actually works. But is the clumsy, inarticulate love of Edward and Florence—so specific and so explicitly tied to England in 1962—somehow representative? I worry that it lacks resonance, that this couple, though briefly, vividly alive on the page, will have no afterlife.
On Chesil Beach is an expert little novel, but for me, at least, its intimate music is drowned out by the echo of more powerful voices.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.