In his last novel, Saturday, Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan confined his narrative to a single day, managing to convey a life a lifetime even within those limited boundaries. Always a master of concision, McEwan has pared down the parameters of story even further in his brief but incisive new work, On Chesil Beach.
The crucial action in On Chesil Beach takes place within just a few hours on the wedding night of a young English couple in 1962. The year is key, for though chronologically part of the decade, 1962 was, culturally, eons away from the Swinging Sixties that would usher in new freedoms and laissez-faire attitudes about sex just a few years later. Newlyweds Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, not long out of university, are both still virgins on their wedding night, and the overlapping anticipation and anxiety of what they will encounter in the marriage bed provide the drama of the story. They live, we are told, in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. So, as they eat their supper in the room of a Georgian inn on the Dorset coast, just a few hours after their marriage, Edward and Florence each think, but never speak, about what they hope will or will not soon transpire in the adjoining bedroom. For Edward, it promises to be the fulfillment of his long endured abstinence. He loves Florence passionately and without equal, and believes he has been considerate, even noble, in not forcing the physical element of their relationship before their marriage vows. Florence loves Edward with equal ardor, but she plainly fears whatever she is going to encounter, and the information that she has obtained from a modern, forward-looking handbook that was supposed to be helpful to young brides, with its cheery tones and exclamation marks and numbered illustrations has only heightened her fears.
Their thoughts, and the narrative, flow freely in time, as each recalls the events that have brought them to this point. Edward, the son of the headmaster of a rural primary school south of Oxford, grew up in a loving home clouded by the presence of a brain-damaged mother. Florence's upper-middle-class North Oxford family was far more concerned with creature comforts and keeping up appearances. Florence has broken from convention by studying music. An outstanding violinist, her energies are focused on honing the abilities of her string quartet and advancing its success. Edward, with a first in history from London University, is somewhat adrift career-wise, until his future father-in-law offers him an entirely unsuitable job with the family firm. He can always write history books on the side, he reasons, with youthful optimism. Both Florence and Edward are intelligent, agreeable people with progressive ideas (they meet at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament gathering), ideally suited for each other in temperament and interests, which makes it all the more painful as we watch their future evaporate because of misunderstandings and unspoken sentiments. McEwan has a knack for getting beneath the skin of lovers, and because we, as readers, are privy to inner thoughts that Edward and Florence never convey we come to know each better than they can ever know each other.
It is this frustrating disconnect that gives On Chesil Beach its cumulative, albeit quiet, power. Really no more than a novella, the book nonetheless has the wisdom and depth that characterize all of McEwan's work. As always, his prose is elegant and restrained, yet knowing in its subtle details. With efficiency, he captures the mood of Britain at a transitional time, with empire and influence waning and a new generation attempting to find its place. McEwan accomplishes much in a deceptively small story that purports to be simply about a few hours on a wedding night in a second-rate hotel overlooking the English Channel. Like Howard's End or The End of the Affair, On Chesil Beach is a haunting book about missed opportunities, misapprehensions and the irreparable damage done by things left unsaid. Robert Weibezahl, author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.