On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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.



8 thoughts on “On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

    • I think you’d like it, it’s a short story which you like! Are you a McEwan fan? I think you have to be able to feel some sympathy for the characters so I guess it depends on your own views on the matter?

      P.s. Fingersmith – WOW!

  1. I adored this book, it was just so profound. I wanted to shake both Edward and Florence because they clearly loved each other and could have sorted their problem out – they just couldn’t communicate. Thanks for posting this review and reminding me of how much I like this book.

    • It was very profound and I think the fact that it was written in such a small space allowed it to make a stronger impact strangely. I know what you mean about wanting to shake them! He does a great job of reflecting how stilted communication was on that subject in that time. Thank you for stopping by : )

  2. I’ve just finished reading this – wow, it’s so sad! I didn’t read your review properly until after I’d read it so I didn’t know what to expect. I felt for both characters and hoped for a moment when they would pull themselves together and figure it out. Good book. I’d only read one of McEwan’s books before this – it didn’t make me want to read more. I gave this a chance on your recommendation and I’m glad I did. 🙂

    • Hi Sammy Dee, glad you liked it. It’s a funny one isn’t it? On the one hand you love it, on the other it’s heartbreaking. I had the same feelings as you, I just wanted to dive into the book and talk some sense into them : ) That’s what McEwan does so well though; showing us one unsaid word or one misunderstanding can change everything. Which other book have you read by him? Do you think you’ll read anymore? I love Atonement and can’t recommend it enough.

      • For days it was bugging me that I couldn’t remember the name of the other book. I’ve just looked it up – it was Enduring Love. I don’t remember being overly impressed, although I remember some bits that obviously left an impression. I think I rushed it and didn’t give myself time to enjoy it. (I kept visualising the actors from the movie version which put me off). I gave the book away so I can’t give it another chance.

      • I read Enduring Love in school so it was lllloooonnggg time ago 🙂 I remember the story quite well though and I remember really enjoying it. It doesn’t help when you’ve got a mental image of Daniel Craig in your head though. I might try and get a copy then we should both give it another go?

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