On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
It is July 1962. Edward and Florence are having their first meal together as a married couple in a hotel on Chesil Beach in Dorset. The title, with its echo of Matthew Arnold, hints of melancholy, and the first sentence,
“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”, sets the tone of the whole book.
There is no doubt of their love for each other. Edward loves Florence for her seriousness, her straight back as she plays the violin, her beauty, sensuousness and good nature. She loves him for his curious mind, his strength and kindness. Yet Florence can’t feel the same physical passion for him that Edward feels for her. For reasons that are barely hinted at, she is terrified of the physical expression of their love and, unable to share her anxiety with anyone, has felt increasingly isolated and abnormal despite the down-to-earth advice of her paperback sex manual “with its cheery tones and exclamation marks and numbered illustration”. Looking for reassurance, she comes across certain phrases or words that “almost make her gag: mucous membrane, and the sinister and glistening glans.”
In this tiny moment, with its limitations of time, place and character, McEwan manages to evoke the essence of the period. Edward and Florence with their hesitancy, awkwardness and innocence reflect the cusp of an era when rigid moral and behavioural codes were beginning to slide into the sexual revolution of the sixties. Edward, to some extent, also represents the period’s, equally defining, social mobility and Florence is his entrée to middle class mores. To a simple country boy these appear fabulously glamorous and sophisticated: he eats yoghurt for the first time and is dazzled by her family’s diet that includes “strange vegetables, muesli, olives, cheese that was not cheddar, entire meals without potatoes..”
This is Ian McEwan back on form and, at 166 pages, at his optimum length. ON CHESIL BEACH is little more than a novella and, throughout, he maintains the balance between character exploration and sustained narrative momentum which he doesn’t always achieve with his longer novels. The entire narrative spans a few hours so that we are reading it, in effect, almost in real time. Yet, far from being laden with unnecessary or superfluous detail to fill the pages, every gesture, word, particular of place, clothes or manner carries its own significance.