On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Buy On Chesil Beach from Amazon.co.uk

Buy On Chesil Beach from Amazon.com

Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: In a short novella, McEwan manages to fit a record of changing sexual and social mores, an extremely convincing depiction of individuals' inner worlds and a psychological (if not to say physiological) insight so piercing that it gets, almost literally, visceral.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224081184

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On Chesil Beach is the story of Edward and Florence, and their wedding night in a hotel near Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle. It's July 1962 and the world (and more importantly, Britain) is very different from now: the couple are both virgins, sex is not spoken of, individual anxieties or desires are not shared even between those just about to consummate their union, the residents' lounge of the hotel is still inhabited by retired colonels grumpy over the handover of the Empire and overcooked beef and potatoes are served by sulky waiters as the meal for the newly weds.

Both are virgins: Edward is suffering from normal first-night nerves, but his anxieties are rather commonplace - we know that, and he'll know it, in hindsight. He's in love with and in awe of Florence, and he's been waiting for long, treading on the eggshells of sexual hypocrisy and individual sensitivity, led by her coy pretence of sensuality and perceptions coloured by his own desire. It's Florence's hangups that lie at the root of the ensuing disaster: she's not just scared of sex, she finds it physically repulsive, invasive, unbearable: her whole body (as well as mind and spirit) recoil at the notion of 'being penetrated' and the stilted and somehow obscene language of marriage manual doesn't help.

There is some background given, both to Edward's and Florence's relationship and to their individual lives, and at some point one might be tempted to speculate on how their personal histories and roots led each of them to this point on the Dorset beach, and whether there was a largely pre-determined inevitability to what happened and ensued, or whether is was a result of a momentary decision made by one or both of them, understandable in the context of their personalities, the mores of the time and the social backgrounds, but ultimately not inevitable until it actually happened.

What I found the most gripping was the rendition of Florence's emotions, thoughts, but most of all, sensations and perceptions of the sexual contact. McEwan has been nominated for the bad sex award for this book, but I think unjustly so. The stilted language used to describe the limited sexual experiences of Edward (and the imaginations of Florence) is a reflection of the idiom of the time, while the detailed account of the wedding night's disaster worked brilliantly to de-familiarise the experience normally coloured by desire and vividly shows how the sexual act (and, even more obviously so, any of its descriptions) permanently teeters on the edge of bathetic. And the double perspective and the wide gulf between Florence's real feelings, her behaviour and Edward's interpretation rang amazingly true, perhaps even more so in the context of the current debates about consent and date rape.

A short and intense read, On Chesil Beach is a sparse, poignant if ultimately not elegiac and very sharp; beautifully told with the now trademark McEwanite clarity and precision. The characters are not particularly likeable (occasionally I detected a faint whiff of Amsterdam) but both their anguish and their pettiness invite compassion, not contempt.

Highly recommended.

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Reviews of other books by Ian McEwan

Saturday

Enduring Love

Atonement

Amsterdam

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