On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. Published 2007 by Doubleday. Literary Fiction.
On Chesil Beach, the latest by acclaimed British writer Ian McEwan, is a very short novel about what may be the worst wedding night in the history of wedding nights. McEwan has been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize six times, and won once, for his 1998 novel Amsterdam, also a short book about a troubled relationship. At least two of his novels have been made into movies- 1981's The Comfort of Strangers became a creepy film starring Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson, and of course 2001's Atonement, in my opinion McEwan's best book, was adapted recently into a movie starring Keira Knightly.
On Chesil Beach has something of the cinematic about it as well- a novel that, while jumping back and forth between the past and present, takes place mostly on a single night, in a single place, enacting a very intimate drama between a man and a woman who understand each other very little and empathize with each other even less. It is the 1960s, and Florence and Edward, two very innocent young adults, have courted, married and arrived at their wedding night with very little understanding either of sex or of each other. Let's just say it doesn't go well for them.
First of all I am a fan of McEwan's, but I don't think all of his books are winners. I loved the Booker-winning Amsterdam right up until the end, when I threw it on the floor after one of McEwan's twist endings ruined the story for me, and have always had mixed reactions to his signature use of violence and psychological horror. Having read some of his darker books, I will never, for example, read The Comfort of Strangers after the claustrophobic menace of the film. Here the horror is almost all psychological; the physical eruption that marks the climax of the book also marks the height of Florence's panic, and leads to the night's denouement. The true horror of the novel comes in a slapdash piece of dramatic irony at the very, very end, when the narrator tells the reader something very important that Edward never learns, something which could have changed everything about their lives together. The fact that Edward never learns this crucial fact is McEwan's final act of cruelty towards characters who seem never destined for much happiness.
I can't say I loved On Chesil Beach but I respect McEwan's accomplishment in creating these vivid characters and enacting this heartbreaking, frustrating drama with his customary panache and skill. I don't think anybody these days writes as well and as consistently as he does. Even though I have issues with him from time to time I think McEwan is one of the best writers in English today and I am always so happy to see a new book of his on the shelf, because I know one way or another he will make me feel something and he will make me think. Next time let's hope he treats his characters a little better than he did On Chesil Beach.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.