On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, a crisp and pocket-sized novel that takes place — with the exception of a number of flashbacks — over the course of a single summer night in 1962, is as tautly constructed as anything he has written, though sprawling in imagination. It’s emblematic of a generation, a semi-scornful elegy for a repressed age, sarcastic about mores and unrelentingly honest about psychological and sexual intimacy. It’s a big book in a little space. You can feel the author at times wishing to burst the bounds of his limited span, to go crashing past these tightly constrained boundaries and begin sweeping up the host of other generational topics available to him. McEwan resists the urge, which is for the best, this is a book better suited for the sprint than the marathon; he’s no Richard Ford, thank god.

On this particular July night in 1962, two newlyweds, Florence and Edward, are settling into their honeymoon suite in an old hotel on the Dorset beach. They’re terribly in love and seem happy enough with their union, but for one pressing issue: the wedding night. Repression and lack of useful information about anything to do with reproduction is the order of the day. It’s the era right on the cusp of the sexual revolution; not only that, it’s England. “The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tall tales about America.” Against this backdrop of misinformation and apprehension are arrayed two starkly opposed viewpoints: Edward’s all-consuming hunger and Florence’s deep-bred fear. In most other settings, this would be the stuff of high farce, but one of McEwan’s great accomplishments here is to make illustrative drama out of this stock scene.

In McEwan’s hands, Edward is something of a fool, though charmingly portrayed. A country boy with a love of rough music and the occasional scrape in a pub, he’s domesticated himself somewhat with higher education. Unsure as to his vocation, he dreams “of a series of short biographies he would write of semi-obscure figures who lived close to the center of important historical events.” Like all dreamers of such things, he’s more interested with imagining how such books would look on a shelf than in actually writing them. An affectless though basically decent kid, Edward is ultimately destined for much less than he imagines. A virgin like Florence, he also has very little idea of what he’s supposed to do.

Florence is a different proposition altogether, and much more of a type than her husband. The immaculately poised violinist daughter of a wealthy businessman and a flighty Oxford professor, she’s bright but brittle and utterly terrified as to what she’s up against. In all other aspects of life, Florence is something to behold, and she can’t understand why this one thing is proving so difficult to comprehend; and in fact just wishes it would go away entirely. Through various stratagems and delaying tactics, she does what she can to postpone the onset of the horrifying moment when she’ll be naked on the bed, having some unutterable and unknowable something being done to her. A stubbornness enters her mind at one point (“She was no lamb to uncomplainingly knifed. Or penetrated”) and grows stronger as the inevitable approaches.

McEwan leavens in reflections on the couple’s backgrounds between the courses of their mortifying wedding night dinner (“This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad”), fleshing the portrait of these young adults, these kids, poised on the verge of something wonderful, or unbelievably awful. The prose is polished and neat, leaping from page to page with an ease that’s almost suspect. Somehow in the narrow confines of this one night, he is able to encapsulate a world of possibilities, the universe of their life experiences, desires and fears at this particular moment in history, when so many things were simply Not Talked About.

The precise nature of McEwan’s writing fortunately doesn’t leave him scrabbling about looking for gentle euphemisms when it comes to talking about the naughty bits. On Chesil Beach instead conveys a generous understanding of the flawed humans at its center, and a penetrating honesty about what exactly is happening. Fear, modesty and ignorance take their toll, of course, and it’s no surprise that the wedding night is not one that anybody would look back on fondly. One wants everything to be okay for these two, and when it looks like it might not be, the effect is grim. What keeps the novel from being smug (the modern author looks back on a repressed time and laughs) is its warm sense of compassion as we follow these two fumbling in the dark toward some idea of contentment, a difficult enough prospect without being additionally deprived of any concrete knowledge about what marriage actually entails. If On Chesil Beach is any indication, it’s a wonder anybody from this time period stayed married at all.

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