Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach is a psychological love story. Taking us into the minds of two young lovers in the early 1960s, McEwan tells the story of love gone wrong. Florence, a gifted and dedicated violinist, and Edward, a sensitive, budding historian, meet at a political activist meeting neither of them really wanted to attend. There is attraction from both sides, and a courtship begins. The tension in the story is the couple’s inability to consummate their love, and more specifically, their inability to even mention the problem. Both are virgins. Edward wants to have sex, but Florence does not. Although this is a tired gendered stereotype, McEwan mainly avoids perpetuating it by exploring the problem carefully and considerately from both perspectives.

The story opens on the Dorset Coast in England with the couple sitting in their hotel room having dinner after their wedding. It is a very awkward situation—Edward wonders why they can’t simply abandon their meals and run into the bedroom, and Florence realises with horror that this is what they ‘should’ be doing. None of this is spoken.

The story of their courtship to date is told via flashbacks until the moment we return to the present uncomfortable dinner table. The story is narrated by both Florence and Edward, depending on whose life is being reflected upon. We learn that Edward was raised by his father, who is the local headmaster, because his mother was brain damaged. I am not entirely sure of the significance of this in the story. Were we meant to feel sympathy for him? Did the absence of a functional mother figure in his life somehow affect his choice of spouse or his penchant for getting into punch-ups as a young man?

We learn that Florence, raised in a middle-class family, was an only child and that her mother was an academic but was emotionally cold. At times it seems that McEwan wants us to believe that Florence’s mother’s lack of affection for her daughter is partly to blame for Florence being the way she is regarding sex. Yet, there is also a murky undertone of past sexual abuse at the hands of her father, which McEwan clearly wants us to ponder as a reason for Florence’s abhorrence for the idea of sex.

On Chesil Beach is not a long story. It’s a close examination of intimacy and incompatibility, is painful to read in spots and the characters are not particularly endearing. This is standard fare for McEwan novels. The beauty of the novel lies in McEwan’s ability to get inside his characters’ heads and convince the readers they are real. I have read reviews that criticise this book for its lack of plausibility. For me, the characters’ inability to communicate was frustrating, but understandable. I found the characters perfectly believable, and even saw myself in Florence at times.

Without giving the plot away, I thought the last section of the book was aimless and quite boring. If McEwan had omitted this part, I think it would be an outstanding short story. As it stands it is a very good, but not outstanding, novel.

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