Book review: Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach

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I’ll start this review off in a non-traditional way: by stating that this was the worst book I’ve read this year. Don’t get fooled though: the truth is I’ve only read two books this year – On Chesil Beach and the Hobbit (for the third time) – and with all my respect to Ian McEwan, nothing can beat the Hobbit (in principle). So the fact that it didn’t beat it is not important at all.

On Chesil Beach is one wonderful and unforgettable book.

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It was written by Ian McEwan – that is, I dare say, quite self-explanatory. I utterly love his books and his style, especially these short novellas of his. His ability of telling a powerful, touching story in less than 200 pages is extraordinary. Take “The Cement Garden” as an example: the whole story seems to flow slowly, it elevates one step at a time and then suddenly boom! the last few pages leave you absolutely dumbfounded, speechless and crying for more. On Chesil Beach is very similar. When it comes to devastating and thought-provoking endings – McEwan is the guy for the job.

What has to be pointed out is how McEwan brilliantly portrays the two main characters – Edward and Florence – the young newlyweds. I think in general this is one of his strongest points as an author. When you read any of his books you feel like you know the characters personally, you can even predict their moods, feelings or actions as though they were your friends. He has a gift of making his characters plastic, they almost step out of each page and become real.

So far I was talking about Ian McEwan as an author, now, back to this little book. It’s only 166 pages long so keen readers can wrap it up in a matter of a weekend. It is quite a simple story, too. In fact, the whole book is about one day (a couple of hours actually) with a few flashbacks to the past. Despite that, after reading the last page you have a feeling of finishing a long and elaborate story.

The plot is set in 1962, England. McEwan gives us a clear picture of that era portrayed brilliantly via the two young innocents – Edward and Florence. We all know 60s were particularly turbulent when it comes to progress. The beginning of the decade was still very conservative whereas by the end of it music got louder, skirts got shorter, manners loosened and… we all know how it went on. For the sake of this story one thing has to be added: so far as sex is concerned, in 1962 it was still an embarrassing issue discussed with blush on the cheeks.

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Yes, the book is about sex. But not in a way you might think. In this gentle story sex is conceived as a fundamental part of our lives. Even if we tried hard, we could not escape it. At the end of the day, what are we all if not results of sex? If we looked upon it from a philosophical point of view, in the large picture sex and reproduction is our mission. It is what the future of all species on this planet depend on.

Edward and Florence are just married, both virgins and their big moment is just about to happen. They both struggle with their personal fears. Edward fears failure and clumsiness due to his ignorance and lack of experience. He does not want to be a disappointment to his new wife, which is strengthened by his muted self-consciousness about their uneven social backgrounds (he’s a village boy, while Florence comes from a wealthy family). She, on the other hand has her own demons. She doesn’t fear the failure as much as she fears the act of love itself. She struggles with a strong revulsion towards anything connected to sex. She loathes the very thought of it.

Their as yet perfect relationship is put to a risk when they at last make the “with my body I thee worship” part of their wedding vow happen.

On Chesil Beach carries an important message of love.

It shows us that to love is simply not enough. A relationship or a marriage is not merely about whether we love our partner or not. Love is more complicated than that. Life puts too many obstacles in front of us, things that hinder love from being simple and innocent. Our hearts are shackled by all sorts of things: the society, parents, expectations, anxieties, prejudices, reason, logic, rigidness of our minds…

It also shows us how important a thing sex is. Whether one wants to admit it or not, sex, especially in the first years is a crucial part of every relationship/marriage. Looking at Edward’s and especially Florence’s fears only points out what a great deal of pressure is put upon two people who, on account of religion, had to wait with sex until their wedding night. Not to mention how it kills spontaneity – it is like sex was an appointment marked red in your day planner – “Saturday, 23 July, 22:00 – First Sex”. The surety of it happening on that specific day/night makes it more of a dread than something to be looked forward to.

Despite very serious issues the book deals with, McEwan wrote it in a very easy style. Certain passages will even make you giggle – e.g. Florence’s ignorance about sex and men’s body is (especially in the 21st century) really amusing.

All in all, it is a really sad story on the background of something as normal and fundamental as sex. The book bears a tragic and devastating fate of two innocent people, who just wanted to be happy. The problem was that each one of them had a different conception of happiness.

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My rating: 5/5. I highly recommend. This book will get you thinking.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach

  1. I love Ian McEwan and especially this one! It’s beautiful but like all of his books, leaves you feeling as though you had been punched hard in the gut. Also, one of the best reviews I have read on here, especially the analysis of their love. It made me think and want to read the book again just to gain that different perspective. Very good!

    Liked by 1 person

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