They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, andA mellow, disarmingly direct, almost old-fashioned opening to Ian McEwan's latest book, the 2007 work On Chesil Beach.
they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly
The year is 1962. The setting is Oxford. Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting have just wed. Now starts the tough part. The sex.
They are young, inexperienced, nervous, and with at least one of them, disgusted at the idea of physical consummation of their love (no prizes for guessing if it is the man or the woman). On Chesil Beach is the tale of that fateful first evening of their marriage. An evening where we see two people, clearly in love, all twisted up by their own upbringings, making a hash of what should be simple, natural. Here is Edward -
It pained him that their wedding night was not simple, when their love was so obvious.
The night deepens, and the conversations each is having in their mind gets more labored, more twisted, more anguished. As a reader, you start getting the feeling that something more might be at stake here than just the success of the night. You want them to work it out. You want them to grow up. Most of all, you want them to talk. About what they are really feeling, instead of what each thinks the other wants to hear. You want them to open up. You want them to grow up. But it all seems to be conspiring against them - their youth, their love, their times. The marriage is already carrying too heavy a burden.
It was still the era - it would end later in that famous decade - when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.
The darkness mounts, both outside and in.
On Chesil Beach is a short book, flirting, in its lack of length, with the boundaries of being a novel at all. For much of the book, there are no other characters, apart from our two protagonists and their inner selves. The book still stand outs out for two reasons. First, the always sensitive McEwan is in top form. The pages glow with ever so subtle twists of language that show an author utterly in control of the emotional voice of his characters. Then, there are the last few pages of the book. A book that had risked becoming a puerile look at old-fashioned naivete turns, with one vicious twist, into a truly wrenching heartbreaker.
McEwan likes dramatic events. He is enamoured with this idea of singular events in the past haunting the lives of his characters for years to come. This was at the heart of Atonement. Saturday toyed with it. As did Amsterdam. Now, I like emotionally taut set-pieces as much as the next reader. I wonder though whether this is starting to wear a bit thin with McEwan at the helm. Particularly when at the core of the piece is the well-worn conflict of genders' attitude to sex, I wonder whether McEwan ends up making too much of what is, for all his deftness, too little.