Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is the story of two people - Edward and Florence - who marry in 1962, on the cusp of the sexual revolution. They come from starkly different pasts. Edward is the son of a poor farmer, while Florence comes from a wealthy background. Florence is a gifted musician who loves classical music, and although Edward loves to watch Florence play the violin, his musical interests lie in rock and roll. But it is not only their pasts and interests which diverge in this slim novel, but their expectations of intimacy. Early on the reader feels a sense of unease about Florence, that there is a secret she clasps close to her heart while emotionally isolating herself from others.
All these years she had lived in isolation within herself and, strangely, from herself, never wanting or daring to look back. In the stone-floored echoing hall with the heavy low beams, her problems with Edward were already present in those first few seconds, in their first exchange of looks. -From On Chesil Beach, page 76-
On Chesil Beach takes place mostly on the eve of Edward and Florence’s wedding where the expectations around consummating the marriage create the tension in the novel. Each character brings with them a past which shapes the present…and ultimately their future.
McEwan is a precise writer who has sharpened his prose to a fine point in this stunning book about intimacy and empathy. Inaction can be more tragic than action - and On Chesil Beach demonstrates this idea vividly. McEwan is brilliant in the development of his characters - compressing their lives and drawing their motivations toward one moment in time which becomes irretrievable. The writing is absorbing and riveting and no word is wasted.
Many readers may find the subject matter uncomfortable, which I believe was McEwan’s intent. But those readers who overcome their discomfort will uncover a gem of a book which is sharply observed and compassionate.
On Chesil Beach was short listed for the Booker Prize in 2007.