On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan, 2007, read in the Vintage 2008 edition.
I am going to break all my rules and say what I think this book is about, bearing in mind that I am not sure I even believe in the idea of books simply being “about” one thing.
The plot, such as it is, is quickly summarised in McEwan’s opening sentence:
“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible”.
We go on to find out that the couple are named Edward and Florence, are in their early twenties, and that the novel is set in summer 1962. Florence is terrified of the imminent consummation of the marriage – which never actually occurs, Edward suffering a spectacular bout of “over-excitement”. After this traumatic start the marriage, indeed the honeymoon, never recovers, and scarred by disappointment and fear they part.
When I first read this novel, shortly after the splendid Atonement, I thought it was about those moments in people’s lives where roads part, and where a word at the right time could change the course of events. The narrator in closing the book explicitly invites the reader to view it in that way. A kind word or words by one or other of the main characters could have rescued their relationship. Fear of sex combined with first night nerves probably feature in many honeymooners’ experience, but love manages to bring couples through the other side.
So why is Florence – (echoes of Florence Nightingale perhaps?) – so scared of sexual contact with her husband. She is clearly torn between her love for him, and her fear of sex – McEwan describes this as a “secret affair between disgust and joy”(page 23). Even French kissing, portentously reminiscent of intercourse itself, makes her want to gag.
The author never tells us directly what causes this fear, but “clues” are scattered throughout the text. On the opening page we are told Florence is an old hand at staying in hotels (a strange expression) “after many trips with her father”. Not with her parents note. Later, when describing Florence’s childhood, we are told (page 54) “Florence found it harder to contradict Geoffrey (her father). She could never shake off a sense of awkward obligation to him. Among the privileges of her childhood was the keen attention that might have been directed at a brother, a son. …And then the journeys: just the two of them, hiking in the Alps, Sierra Nevada and Pyrenees, and the special treats, the one-night business trips to European cities where she and Geoffrey always stayed in the grandest hotels.”
Where is her mother, very much still part of the family, when these jaunts are going on? We are not told. Why is it “Geoffrey”, not “her father”? The omniscient narrator appears to be viewing these jaunts as unexceptional, nothing out of the ordinary, but this is clearly Florence’s flawed perspective rather than a reliable viewpoint. Her relationship with her mother on the other hand is fragile and unphysical “Violet had barely ever touched her daughter at all” (Page 55) – we are left to infer why, but the mother must have withdrawn affection from her daughter for a reason.
When the dreaded moment approaches, and Edward is about to “make his move”, Florence lies back and thinks herself elsewhere. Her mind takes her to an occasion when she
“was twelve years old, lying still like this, waiting, shivering in the narrow bunk with polished mahogany sides….her father was moving about the dim cramped cabin, undressing, like Edward now. She remembered…the clink of a belt unfastened…her only task was to keep her eyes closed and to think of a tune she liked. Or any tune. She remembered the sweet scent of almost rotten food”
It can’t be a coincidence surely that her memory of this scene is prompted by her imminent if ultimately unsuccessful “deflowering”. McEwan has given Florence this memory for a reason. Something has traumatised her. In both scenarios she feels a passive victim of male lust. So when Edward finally gives out a wail “the sort of sound she had once hear in a comedy film when a waiter appeared to be about to drop a towering pile of soup plates” (candidate for simile of the year in my book) her revulsion, as well as the immediate visceral objection, has
“another element, far worse in its way, and quite beyond her control, summoning memories she had long ago decided were not really hers. … She was incapable of repressing her primal disgust”. (My emphasis)
Why would this incident summon memories she had decided long ago were not hers? What memories, and why were they far worse than her already strong reaction?
Finally, when they are on the beach itself, discussing her reaction, she jokes “perhaps what I really need to do I kill my mother and marry my father” (page 153). Indeed.
I think we are being invited by McEwan, without being told to do so, to consider the distinct possibility that this is a novel about how sex abuse can happen in the best of families, and how it can ruin lives. The final paragraphs telling us to think of the novel as being about turning points in our lives is misdirection.
Of course this is just one element to the book. There are many carefully drawn scenes, and the sense of time and place, that precarious moment in the country’s history “between the end of the Chatterley ban, and the Beatles’ first LP”, where memories of the war are still strong, and national service is still in force, is exquisitely drawn. The writing is confident and precise, and although only 150 pages long I believe this is McEwan’s at his best.
P.S. One final point, to indulge my hobby of joining the dots between books – I spotted a strong echo of Lawrence in the scene (page 46) where Edward cycles, “at reckless speed, for the brakes barely worked” which reminded me of Paul Morel’s barrelling around the lanes of Sons and Lovers on a bicycle without brakes, risking life and limb and demonstrating his manly bravado.