On Chesil Beach is a book like Ian McEwan’s Saturday or Graham Swift’s Tomorrow, in the sense that it’s central focus spans a few hours, in this novel, only one evening.
There are other features to observe in the background and the frame but the miniature canvas highlights the exquisite description of ordinary actions, the concentrated attention on little details, the magnificent selection of words and the timing of silences that are both enjoyed and endured.
McEwan’s plot for this short novel involves two virgins on their wedding night staying in a hotel at Chesil Beach, Dorset, England, in the year 1962. After a brief account of the wedding in Oxford and their first meal alone as husband and wife the novel describes their movements and feelings from the dining table to the creaky, four-poster bed.
The relief of knowing that the wedding day went off without a hitch, the sound of waves and the scent of flowers, sets the stage for some warm and intense fellowship.
The themes of fluidity and stiffness are captured well by McEwan in this description of the hotel meal:
“The altered breeze carried through the parted French windows an enticement, a salty scent of oxygen and open space that seemed at odds with the starched table linen, the corn-flour-stiffened gravy, and the heavy polished silver they were taking in their hands.”
The author sketches the way that “the times held them”, with the sexual mores of the pre-Pill 1960s, the shaping power of their parents and the one thousand “unacknowledged rules that applied when two people were alone.”
One of the many amusing incidents involves the bridegroom battling with the terror of ‘arriving too soon’ and hitting on the steadying technique of concentrating his mind upon Prime Minister Harold McMillan, “who was everything that was not sex and ideal for the purpose.”
The book identifies the apprehension and anxieties in an evolving relationship, and the often conflicting dynamics of curiosity and coyness, fantasies and fears and nakedness and concealment. It is about the challenge of people in a relationship to patiently learn the language needed to name the unnamable and muster the courage to share true feelings. While the book revolves around a marriage relationship, it provides a useful catalyst to conversation for people in other types of relationships and implicitly stresses the need for communication and negotiation.
On Chesil Beach is about the power of words spoken and left unspoken, not only those that are solemnly expressed in wedding services but the decisions that are made on beds and beaches which then determine the course of people’s lives.
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007), is available in the United Arab Emirates from Magrudy’s bookshops at a cost of Dh72.00.
Image: Front Cover of On Chesil Beach.