McEwan has an extraordinary talent for taking an everyday event and a seemingly innocent moment to show how a simple misunderstanding can change the course of a lifetime. A stunning novella.
I hardly ever re read old books, no matter how much I love them I just never seem to make the time for it. Yet when On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan found it’s way into my hands I knew straight away that this light novella would make for a worthy re read; I couldn’t resists it’s powers of persuasion anymore the second time than I could the first.
The book centers around a young married couple on their wedding night in 1962. Florence is a wealthy and privileged violinist, her fiancé Edward is a passionate academic from a poorer background. They both feel deeply enamored by one another and both eagerly await their married life but there is one challenge that must first be met and they both nervously and privately brood over their own expectations and fears of their first night together as man and woman.
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
Whilst Edwards ardently anticipates the sexual relationship his bride is more hesitant; her attitude and signals seem to Edward to suggest a frigid nature, although as the novel wears on it becomes apparent to the reader that her timid attitude is a result of more complexly developed reservations. She wishes to prolong or put off the moment. She encompasses a woman who would prefer never to go down this route through fear, and yet she is compelled by the need to satisfy and please her husband. Underneath this all is the deep nagging and excruciating apprehension that she might never be able to do this.
Edward in turn is ambitious and eager to embark upon the journey causing and a tension between them which builds and grows to a crescendo of emotion that is at times painful and uncomfortable to observe.
My empathy lent to both characters, a younger part of me could easily feel for Florence and the terror she must have felt at embarking on this journey when her own trust in this matter is shrouded with insurmountable fear. Likewise an older part of me felt for Edward who clearly and desperately wants to fulfill his relationship but is met with a bombardment of confusing feelings and messages.
In an age where we have perhaps become desensitized to sexual reference it is easy to underestimate the unsurpassable fear that can accompany a couple in this position. But where his characters fail to openly and candidly speak to one another, McEwan opens up the subject and fully explores all of the intimate and complex fears that such a situation can create. He portrays perfectly a generation whose sexual feelings and desires were concealed by societies unspoken rules of secrecy and shame.
McEwan goes even deeper than this reflecting back on both characters home lives. Their social backgrounds, their life dreams and how all of these elements affect their ability to communicate and overcome this experience. A sadness tinges the story and the novel develops into an exploration of how inaction can be more deadly than action.
This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing
How unexpressed feelings and un-clarified misunderstanding can devastate a relationship and how the smallest of incidents can have huge ramifications. I love McEwan for his ability to go right into the human mind, deep into the soul and leave no recess unexplored in portraying and examining the complex feelings of young love. The book is frank, honest and very often it unearthed in me emotions and fears I didn’t know I had.
What does everyone else think of this book or of Ian McEwan as a writer? What do you think of this subject matter in a book in general? Do you think the theme is outdated and beyond our sympathies or one that still makes for interesting fiction? I’d love to hear your thoughts.