Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 176 pages; 2007.
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, is one of those delightfully languid books that should be read in one sitting — and at just 176 pages you can comfortably achieve this without frittering half your life away.
Set in England in 1962, it tells the story of two young, some might say emotionally naive, people who marry for the first time. Neither of them are sexually experienced and so the wedding night — in a hotel on the Dorset coast — holds particular significance for both parties.
Yet both Florence and Edward have different expectations — and fears — about “the moment, sometime after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to one another”. Edward is concerned that he’ll disappoint his new wife by the absurdity of the sexual act and his over-excitement, while Florence does not know how to explain that she is dreading the whole experience because the thought of it disgusts and repulses her.
This inability to communicate their concerns with one another has unforeseen consequences. As melodramatic as it sounds, what happens on their wedding night will alter the course of the rest of their lives…
This is a short, quick novel of remarkable depth. McEwan knows what makes people tick and is a master at capturing the moments, thoughts, feelings and misunderstandings that occur between humans.
He is also superb at conveying a sense of time and place. In this book, the mood of the early 1960s, where marriage and the relationships between men and women were dictated by a strict moral code, practically resonates off the page.
The only cricitism I have of On Chesil Beach is that the last part feels somewhat rushed, as if McEwan suddenly ran out of energy and decided to condense what could have been a 400-page book into less than half of that. But if you are looking for a quick but insightful tale about romance gone wrong then this could be the one for you.