Book review: “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I read this for my August reading challenge, which was to choose a book, the title or cover of which was reminiscent of summer. I chose On Chesil Beach because I love Dorset, possibly my favourite county in England, and I love Chesil Beach, which we visited on a family holiday about three years ago. Chesil Beach is one of those fascinating geographical features, dating back to Jurassic times, which reminds you that human habitation on earth is a mere blip in time. It’s an 18-mile stretch of shingle beach, separated from the mainland by a saline lake called the Fleet Lagoon, and formed thousands of years ago as deposits of sediment were plopped near to the coastline, but not on the beach, so creating a ‘barrier beach’ separated from the actual coastline. It’s a haven for wildlife as well as being one of those mysterious oddities that Wessex (yes, I’m a huge fan of Thomas Hardy!) does so well.

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The front cover of On Chesil Beach shows a picture of a woman in a white dress walking along the beach at what appears to be either dawn or dusk. She is walking away from us, into a vague distance. The sky is grey-blue, twilit, with a slash of brightness from the emerging or receding sun. In the far distance are cliffs and the sea on either side of the beach is grey, somewhat forbidding. The skirt of the woman’s dress, and her hair, are blowing in towards the land; there is clearly a strong breeze coming in from the sea. This image is everything I love about the English coast. It reminds me that nature is in charge here, that the earth will prevail. This area is part of Dorset’s Jurassic coast where fossils are easily found and where there is much evidence of the prehistoric past. It is a humbling place to be.

Chesil Beach is the setting of McEwan’s moving, domestic tragedy. Set in the summer of 1962 it begins in a hotel where Edward and Florence are having dinner in their suite on their wedding night. The awkwardness, the tension and the weight of expectation are apparent from the outset, and the detail with which McEwan describes every aspect of the scene made me feel like I was living every excruciating moment of the evening in real time. It is clear very quickly that this is a book about sex. It’s 1962 so the couple have not yet experienced the benefits of the sexual liberation of the 1960s and are still victims of the much more staid post-war attitudes of the 1950s. Despite being newlyweds, and therefore supposed to be a happy young couple, it is clear very early on that each is in a very different place; it is apparent that they have had little intimacy, sexual or otherwise, prior to their wedding. Edward has been ‘patient’ assuming that all will be well once they are married, while Florence has been hoping simply for strength, that she will be able to endure what she thinks will an unpleasant duty once within the confines of marriage.

“They separately worried about the moment, some time soon after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to one another. For over a year, Edward had been mesmerised by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman. How this was to be achieved without absurdity, or disappointment, troubled him…..But what troubled her was unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself. Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.”

And therein lies the nub of the whole book really, how these inner truths reveal themselves, how the pleasant mask of their love begins to crumble and how the relationship is affected under the pressure of these problems.

The book is structured in five parts: the first part is the awful wedding night, subsequent parts provide the back story to Edward and Florence’s relationship, their early lives and their very different backgrounds – class difference plays a big part in the novel too and whilst this is not named as an explicit barrier between them, you get the sense as a reader of her as more refined, affluent, uptight, middle-class, while he is seen as ultimately more vulgar, preoccupied by earthier matters and that this is somehow a consequence of his socially humble background.

I don’t wish to spoil the ending for you if you haven’t read the book, but the final part, the denouement, takes place on Chesil Beach itself, as the two individuals encounter one another at the climax of their so far bitter wedding night experience. It is like a classical scene, like a game of chess as the two manoeuvre around their respective problems. It is a very fine, forensic study of a 1960s relationship that could barely be called a relationship.

A stunning read, which I didn’t expect to be so good. Highly recommended.

(Apologies for any typos I haven’t spotted – my daughter’s hamster gave me a nasty bite on the middle finger of my right hand it has badly affected my typing!)

If you have read this book, what did you think?

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