Thursday, 9 April 2009

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

“This was still the era – it would end later in that famous decade – when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.”

It is 1962 and Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast to enjoy their honeymoon. But as they sit down to dinner each of their minds is pre-occupied with the physical intimacy they know is awaiting them that night. They are both excited and terrified, each completely in love but unable to recognise this depth of passion in the other. But as the events of that single night unfold the lives of the young couple are forever changed by their inability to communicate the love which they are anxiously waiting to consummate.

On Chesil Beach
is a frighteningly intimate study of the psychology of sexuality and love. Set in 1962 it aims to take a look at the world before the sexual liberation of the 1960’s, at characters liberated in their minds but still constrained by unbeatable social pressure. Perhaps Ian McEwan has over-stated the social conditions of the age; is their very Victorian attitude to sex really relevant to the early 1960’s? After all, many of the preconditions for the sexual revolution had already taken place – the advent of the pill, the explosion of teenagers as a social group with spending power, the post-war end of austerity – and theirs is the generation which conducted it. Were it not for his spectacular characterisation this novel might read like a condescending history of a forgotten age.

But it doesn’t. Perhaps the biggest talent in Ian McEwan’s repertoire is his ability to create real, believable characters. One really believes that he has fallen in love with them, imagined them into being to be themselves and tell their own story rather than to make a social point. Edward and Florence may or may not be reflective of their generation, but they are most certainly reflective of their own unique and timeless troubles. Theirs is a thoroughly believable relationship, full of barely recognised strengths and widening pitfalls. It is heartbreaking to watch the events of that night unfold, and because it is McEwan, we know exactly how it is going to end. There will be no magical reprieve for these characters.

Many of McEwan’s novels deals with that single decisive moment when life teeters in a knife edge and the direction of the characters future is determined. It is there most obviously in Atonement and Enduring Love and is again brilliant realised here. But unlike the above, On Chesil Beach is foremost a novel about how that decisive moment came to be rather than its repercussions. In a blow by blow journey through the awkward minds of the two protagonists we feel the constraint of their individual situations, the unavoidable rush of what is to come. By keeping the focus so limited the reader feels present throughout, almost voyeuristically so, and every reader will find something to recognise in the awkward minds of Edward and Florence.

Reminiscent of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music in its pace and tone and the fullness of its characters, On Chesil Beach is the story of good love going wrong. With its slow, detailed prose and focus on reflection, it feels like reading a pale memory of a forgotten age. At only 166 pages On Chesil Beach is a beautifully short novel. There is not one superfluous sentence or wasted description, it is a novel by a writer in total control of their craft.

8 out of 10

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