ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, 2007
What a quietly stunning little book. I didn’t know what to expect from On Chesil Beach, having only read and been somewhat underwhelmed by Atonement about a decade ago, but I have now officially been converted to the church of Ian McEwan. I could not believe the emotional torment he managed to put me through in the space of 200 bite-sized pages.
On Chesil Beach is an almost-love story about Florence and Edward, two young lovers on their honeymoon on the coast of England in 1962. What should be a romantic weekend quickly devolves into something much sadder as an ocean of miscommunications piles up between the two characters. Florence is asexual, though the term asexual is never used because of the time period, and the lack of access to this concept and vocabulary has led Florence to believe that she’s fundamentally broken. As she’s unable to communicate this feeling to Edward, he imbues her actions with false meanings, drawing from his understanding of social conventions to fill in the blanks – she’s shaking because she’s terrified and repulsed and ashamed, but Edward assumes she’s shaking because she’s nervous and excited, because don’t all young women act demure to mask a secret sensuality? There is no precedent for Florence falling outside this expected norm.
McEwan also ties in Florence and Edward’s story to the shifting social attitudes of the time – they’re living in a Britain which hasn’t quite normalized sexuality and celebrated youthful freedom. The two are inexperienced and unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings and desires and expectations to one another, because how do you even start a conversation about sex when it just feels like this abstract concept both to be revered and ashamed of?
I wasn’t prepared for how expansive this book was going to be – McEwan dexterously explores themes of class differences, propriety, love and sex and sexuality, all in economical prose that says so much in a book whose conflict ironically hinges on a lack of articulation on the part of both characters. And above all else this book is just bitterly sad. The final pages are like an emotional gut-punch. If McEwan managed all this in 200 pages, I can’t wait to see what he’s done in his other novels.