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September 10, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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On Chesil Beach

It is never easy to let your inhibitions go enough that you may reach out and touch another person’s mind. To make love to them without over-thinking, attempting to figure out what they’re thinking about you at this moment. Ultimately we are all hidden from one another behind a layer of flesh and past experiences.

Ian McEwan has always been a very clinical writer, depicting the minds of characters in a process of self-destruction. Compared to the death and incest of The Cement Garden or Atonement’s total destruction of a good man’s life through the lies of an over-imaginative girl, the process of self-destruction in On Chesil Beach is subdued.

Two young lovers, fresh out of university and music school, await the consummation of their marriage at a motel, on a stony beach, beneath “entirely adequate” weather. But it is 1962, “not a good moment in the history of English cuisine”, an era “when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible”. Studious newlyweds Florence and Edward care deeply for each other and want to make a go of it. But Florence secretly finds the idea of sex slightly…well… disgusting – though of course she could never bear to confide this to anyone. And Edward, he’s a little concerned about premature ejaculation. Can love overcome the small yet myriad paranoid foibles of the mind?

In a sense, On Chesil Beach is the shadow of McEwan’s earlier The Child in Time. Both books are split into two parts, set years apart: the author, playing his characters like a detached scientist, traces a traumatic event in a relationship during part one, before skipping into the future to see how the couple have dealt with its effect. Both books examine the choice to communicate: the male protagonist must go past fear to communicate with his love despite previous squabbles. It is this simple decision to say something when it needs to be said – whether it is “Yes” or “I’m sorry” or even “I love you” – which can make a whole world of difference. While the answer – say it! – may be obvious, McEwan knows that it is not so easy to overcome shyness or the bitter feeling that you have been wronged. I won’t tell you how each novel ends, but in one the couple do manage to hold on to their bond, while in the other they simply fail to find the right words and drift apart into loneliness. Call it a lesson in how to hold a grudge.

Sparse and uncomfortable, On Chesil Beach lacks the gorgeous diversity of deceits that made Atonement so incredible. Nevertheless, as a snapshot of a couple’s thinking patterns in an era of stuffy self-repression, it is a beautiful achievement. I recommend putting aside a rainy day to devour this short work in one sitting.

IAN MCEWAN

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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