Book review: On Chesil Beach

At only 166 pages long, On Chesil Beach is a sliver of a novel, but don’t let this short length trick you into thinking the story isn’t big in every other sense.

My friend Helen leant me this book after a discussion on a bus journey home about James McAvoy’s admirable qualities, which led to discussing Atonement, and to the Ian McEwan books we’d both read.

I’d read Atonement and Saturday, and really enjoyed both. Atonement especially is quite a tome, although time and patience reward you. Helen recommended On Chesil Beach to me, and very kindly leant me her copy.

I found myself on a return train journey to London last week, so spent much of this train time reading McEwan’s Booker short-listed novella. As soon as I started, I was intrigued. The scene is set – we join two newly weds in the early 60s, in the twilight between their wedding ceremony and the wedding night itself.

The story covers just a few hours of their marriage, and examines these in minute detail, intersecting the minutes with visits back to the story of Florence and Edward’s meeting, courtship, family relationships, hopes and dreams.

On Chesil Beach is Ian McEwan doing what he does best – looking at how small moments in time can have huge impacts on the direction of a life.

It is a story of its time – Florence and Edward’s 60s is not yet the sexually liberated decade we’ve learnt of. They are still constrained by society and its expectations, and at just 22 years old, they are vulnerable and naïve, but also full of hope for life and of love for each other.

The story leads us towards one moment, one turning point in their relationship, which becomes a cliff on which they totter. Will they recover from it, learn from it, trust each other? Or will it be something from which they can’t go back?

On Chesil Beach is absorbing and I was grateful to have some dedicated, uninterrupted hours to read it. Towards the end of the book, when Edward and Florence are on the beach and laying themselves bare, and letting their emotions and hurt egos dictate their battle, I found myself willing each of them to empathise with the other. In many ways, this is a frustrating story, but it also feels true. It is easy to imagine a young woman such as Florence, scared of an unknown sexual life with her husband. And a young man such as Edward, looking forward to the first night of a shared bed with his new wife.

The story is sad, horrifying and heartfelt, and McEwan’s writing is beautiful. One of my favourite scenes is of a walk Florence and Edward take in the summer of their courtship – it captures their love, and the simple pleasure they take in each other’s company, so wonderfully. Scenes like this are what make the book’s ending even harder to read.

On Chesil Beach illustration by the New York Times

If you too have read On Chesil Beach then I’d recommend this review of it on The Guardian website. If you haven’t read the book yet, perhaps don’t read this review, as it does give quite a bit of the story away (which I’ve tried not to do!)…

Big thanks to Helen for the recommendation and lending me her copy of the book. Thanks Helen!