Ian McEwan has a way with words most other writers can only imagine having. He has an almost Joycian level of complexity with his style, but it seems somewhat more accessible. On Chesil Beach is a novella full of this level of writing. It’s very impressive to read.
But does that make it worth reading?
The novella follows the two lives of a couple of newlyweds. The narrative is primarily set on the evening of their wedding. Edward Mayhew is a ‘sixties businessman, and Florence Ponting is a nationally recognised violinist. There is disparity between the two sides of the relationship. Florence is asexual, Edward isn’t. Progress is slow through the book as about three-quarters is given over to just the night of their wedding and flashbacks about how and where they met and segments regarding the development of their relationship. The remaining quarter rushed through most of the rest of Edward’s life. It reminded me of a cycling sprint race where they look over their shoulders at each other for most of the duration of the race then go like hell for the last forty seconds. However this section seems to be more of an epilogue than an end, and as such, it works quite well and leaves you with something to think about after you’ve finished.
One issue I had was the characters as neither Edward nor Florence come across as particularly likeable. Where this isn’t necessarily an issue in a lot of fiction, I find in here it becomes one because of how close you are to the characters. Almost every action, inaction and thought they display as their wedding night is described. You’re inseparable from their being. Again, it’s clever, but it’s not a place I as a reader felt comfortable in. The novella did make me feel uncomfortable in places. The detail is extremely graphic and each emotional response bears a lot of weight. But I didn’t enjoy reading it in the same way I have enjoyed other books. Perhaps it’s too real; the slow motion aspect of the novel leaves nothing to your imagination. It lays every detail on the bed and asks you what you think about it. Or perhaps I was simply frustrated with the two characters. Florence seems very self-obsessed. She talks about how the thought of sex with her husband revolts her. Edward is completely oblivious and naïve to any possible other way of thinking as well. It begs the question of why the couple thought they’d be good for each other at all.
It’s worth remembering that this novella is set in 1960’s southern England, it’s a different world to where we are now, post war, rationing may even have been in effect in some parts of the country. Edward fits into the Angry Young Man persona. He’s been denied fighting in the war due to the fact he was born during it and his tension is released in the form of arousal. The characters are oil and water and both have flaws which mean you cannot really side with either. It’s an interesting novella and the writing is shocking, beautiful and very well thought out. I couldn’t enjoy the book. But I could definitely appreciate the author’s skill in writing it.