“Their wedding night, and they had nothing to say.”
I devoured On Chesil Beach in two sittings, taking advantage of the warm air and the small old table that has become my desk in my small garden, a square plot of grass and some messy flowerbeds that I’ve never paid much attention to but has now become my refuge. Being away from the still confines of the house is incredibly important to me in usual time, but the lockdown has taken my compulsions to nature and blown them up. I work, read and relax in the garden; when it rains or roils with the wind I get nothing done. I tend to think of the dichotomy between in and outdoors as like that between something closed and open. Inside, I am bound, wound up in the artificial and unreal. The grass and trees, the weeds that escape between the paving slabs, the chipped flower pots made into bowls and baths for passing birds – that’s the home where I truly belong. Passing over old stone and bark, the death and rebirth of the natural world brings energy and serenity, vibrant motions and eternal solitude; it brings reality in all iterations, and my thoughts and feelings can pass through and expand and contract with the breeze into something more distilled. Inside, I knock groggily against brick, plaster and paint. True honesty of heart and mind can only burst forth beyond these walls.
“She could already see ahead. They would have this row, they would make up, or half make up, she would be coaxed back into the room, and then the expectations would be laid on her again. And she would fail again.”
It’s a dichotomy ever-present throughout Ian McEwan’s novella, which entices its reader with the promise of Chesil Beach from the very first glance. Edward and Florence are having dinner; it is their wedding night. What follows is a masterclass of wringing and growing drama out of even the smallest moments, diving into how temporality as we know it is comprised of a million memories and past lives culminating in movement and thoughts that may be otherwise inexplicable. The in-depth explorations of their past, told through flipping perspectives, fly by in an instant with McEwan’s wonderful prose; anxious, tranquil, tempestuous, sensual, terrifying, all at once. As the gardens and forests, I find myself drawn to, On Chesil Beach is life writ large.
“Even when Ponting was sitting down he did not relax – he balanced himself on the edge of his seat, ready to leap up, and he jigged his knee up and down as he spoke, or wiggles his toes in his sandals in time to a rhythm in his head.”
“He trudged slowly along the beach, stopping often to address in his mind a stern impartial judge who understood his case completely. In his misfortune, he felt almost noble.”
McEwan’s characterisations, those brief asides of physicality and thought on the page, are frequently the most revealing of his overall authorial purpose, underlining the emotional and intellectual honesty which charges through the book. McEwan notes on the final page that the characters and events described are fictional, but I find it difficult to conceive of On Chesil Beach as existing without any basis in reality, even if it is just a composite of observations from across others in time. The story is, fundamentally, a truthful one, tackling love and sex with the complexity it deserves but is so infrequently afforded, and performing an essential service for teenagers who happen to pick up this short tale about youthful newlyweds. Grasping and deepening the understanding of bodies, our own and those of others, and how they interact with our emotions, is so vital for all facets of growing up. In Edward and Florence, McEwan has crafted two characters who are universal. We have all felt how they both felt, and the failures of their relationship are painful to read for how much truth is embedded within them.
“She wanted to be in love and be herself. But to be herself, she had to say no all the time. And then she was no longer herself.”
“It pained him tremendously that their wedding night was not simple, when their love was so obvious.”
“He was known to his university friends as one of those quiet types, prone to the occasional violent eruption.”
“When they kissed she immediately felt his tongue, tensed and strong, pushing past her teeth, like some bully shouldering his way into a room.”
Like the promise of Chesil Beach, the reader knows from the first page that this is a failed marriage. Their inability to communicate with one another, the discomfort and performance in their actions, the sense of torn paper being stretched across cracks is all palpable, manifesting in those tiny moments which would normally just fill up word counts. Every fault is clear to see to the discerning eye; everything afterwards is simultaneously discovery, an expansion of context and history, but also the lucid distilling of an icy tension. We know precisely how, and where, this is going to end.
“During that warm summer, his desire for Florence was inseparable from the setting – the huge white rooms and their dustless wooden floors warmed by sunlight, the cool green air of the tangled garden breathed into the house through open windows, the scented blossoms of North Oxford, the fresh hardback books piled on tables in the library.”
“The feel of it crawling across her skin in thick rivulets, its alien milkiness, its intimate starchy odour, which dragged with it the stench of a shameful secret locked in musty confinement – she could not help herself, she had to be rid of it.”
What delighted me was the adventures in prose McEwan would embark on. On Chesil Beach is body horror wrapped up in gleaming pastoral fantasy. It is scary and unsettling and sickening, as is wont in love and sex, but it is gorgeously rich and loving, too. McEwan knows where to lean into romanticism and when to tear it away, knocking down the walls – both physical and metaphorical – around these characters. Perhaps the message of the book is all that lies underneath the cloying warmth and sentimentality of our social lives and conventions is mind and flesh; raw, blemished, exposed in open air.
“He remained an unreadable, two-dimensional shape against the sea, utterly still.”
Beaches are melancholic images. I don’t go often. They’re dark and vast and ancient; there is nowhere to hide.