On Chesil Beach is Ian McEwan’s tenth novel. As an author who has become synonymous with star-crossed lovers (Atonement), unreliable narrators (Enduring Love, Nutshell), and gritty realism (The Cement Garden), On Chesil Beach is regarded as one of McEwan’s classics.
Set at the turn of the Swinging Sixties, On Chesil Beach follows Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew as they go from innocence to experience in their attempt to lose their virginities on their wedding night.
Although there is very little dialogue (which does not begin until page 82) the novel encapsulates sexual anxiety and tension from both parties. In the first chapter, McEwan presents the scene of Edward and Florence eating their wedding meal in the hotel. Through the rush of servants and the carvings of beef, an awkwardness arises between the pair. McEwan makes an important point in this scene: ‘Even when Edward and Florence were alone, a thousand unacknowledged rules still applied’ (p. 18). The anxiety looms over the pair and McEwan cleverly implies this without the characters having to say a single word to one another.
The settings and locations in the novel are also a source of praise. Florence and Edward are constantly crammed into claustrophobic settings (i.e. the hotel or Florence’s parents’ house) where they are expected to perform. Even when they are free (i.e. the beach and Henley), these settings are psychologically associative. The sea and the beach remind Florence of the implied sexual abuse that she suffered as a child. Again, in Henley, the pair are constantly watched by Florence’s father when Edward takes on a job at the cricket ground. For Edward too, the constant reminder of his brain damaged mother departs him from the ruffian personality he tries to depict. While Florence tries to take the role of his mother in their house, Edward cries silently. No longer does he have to put on the laddish and bashful persona; he is a real human being.
This is not a perfect novel, by any means, but McEwan deftly taps into the subconscious of sexual anxiety from a female and male perspective. I would recommend this novel to fans of McEwan and to anyone who enjoys reading about the complexities of relationships and life.