On Chesil Beach

By Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s reputation as one of the world’s most important, and best, writers took a bit of a hit with his last book, Saturday. Much of the criticism directed at Saturday was, I thought, unfair; despite a flawed ending the book as a whole showed he was still a master of his craft. But with the short novel On Chesil Beach it is clear that something has gone very wrong.

The set-up introduces us to the standard McEwan couple: an intellectual, practical man (in this case Edward, who has a history degree and works for Florence’s father) and an artistic, overly sensitive woman (Florence, who has small breasts and plays the violin). It is July, 1962 and Edward and Florence have just gotten married. The novel follows the course of their wedding night from dinner in their hotel room, into the bed chamber, and then out onto the shingles of Chesil Beach. Not a lot happens and very little is said. “It never occurred to Forence that the preliminaries of love would take place in dumb show, in such intense and watchful silence.” But this is McEwan, and the silence is always intense. The reader is stretched on the rack of these quiet moments, with the tension slowly building to the much anticipated moment of release while the narrator fills us in on the history of Edward and Florence’s courtship.

Then, after an ironically abrupt climax, there is the scene on the beach and a rushed denouement.

It should have worked. McEwan has always been good at describing the edgy interior dramas that run just beneath our everyday lives. He has an ability to tease out of minor details weird psychological effects. And there is a unity of theme to the action – the overcoming of a conditioned repression and the myth of being set free by love and re-born in sex – that holds it all together. The sitting room where the young couple eat their dinner is the metaphorical “form of ante-room” within which they both wait for their adult lives to finally begin. We are looking back on “those days” just before the sexual revolution. In just a few years their wedding night, it is said, would be a far simpler event. “But for now, the times held them.” The times, and their own personal histories as well. The difference in class between them, for example, and the lightly hinted-at delinquencies of Florence’s father.

Despite all this, the resulting book is an unintentionally hilarious failure. McEwan’s worrying of trivia blossoms into Florence’s grotesque obsession with single pubic and nostril hairs. She is fixated on follicles. As Edward comes in for a kiss “she had a view into the darkness of his nostrils, and of a solitary bent hair in the left, standing like a bowed man before a grotto, trembling with every exhalation.” This is pure bathos, and there are many other moments like it. One has to wince at how Edward’s “crazed restraint” in preparation for his wedding life begins “bearing down hard on his body’s young chemistry” in the bedroom. Even McEwan’s usual clinical exactitude flounders through a series of physiologically dubious descriptions of the dirty deed. Edward’s penis (“strangely cool”) is felt by Florence “repeatedly jabbing and bumping into and around her urethra.” Into her urethra? When Edward ejaculates (with remarkable force given its prematurity) his semen instantly dries and cakes “to a cracked glaze” on Florence’s skin. Florence also remembers “the reptilian jerkiness along [Edward’s] spine” as he orgasms. How is his spine jerking? What is reptilian about a jerky spine? And how can she see his spine anyway if he is on top of and in front of her?

The award for Bad Sex Writing this year might as well declare a winner. And this from the man who gave us the electric scene of Robbie and Cecilia doing it up against the book shelves in Atonement!

It isn’t just the writing that misfires. The end of the affair is full of trite, sentimental, and over-staged moments. Perhaps the best that can be said is that it’s the kind of very bad book that only a great writer can write. It certainly aspires to be something more. It’s just that this time that only makes things worse.

Review first published May 26, 2007.

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