On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Since he won the Booker Prize with Amsterdam and popular and critical success with Atonement each new work by Ian McEwan is greeted with fervent anticipation and phrases like 'a writer at the height of his powers'. I loved Atonement, found lots to admire in Saturday (but also quite a lot that was frankly laughable) and to be honest wasn't all that fussed about reading this slim novella, and it was interesting to see that sales of On Chesil Beach outstripped the sales of all the other titles on this years Booker shortlist combined.
Edward and Florence, both virgins, are spending their first night as a married couple at a hotel near the famous Chesil Beach. They are both from different backgrounds; Edward has led a life of limited worldly experience and Florence, a gifted musician, one of privilege. They both have their own worries about the intimacy of this first night as man and wife; Edward, rather hilariously, has abstained from 'self-pleasuring' for over a week so as to be on top form for his bride but worries about arriving too soon, Florence, disgusted by the idea of physical intimacy, is not only fearful but aware that she has brought this on herself.
This is a short story really which has been fleshed out with some family background for both characters which doesn't really convince and a hastily summarised ending which feels tacked on. It's a shame really because the writing, as ever, is first rate. The prose is tight with barely a word wasted and there is a lot of fun to be had in the descriptions of the young couple's awkward courtship; one highlight being Edward's military style campaign towards sexual intimacy being set back months after a misguided fumble in a darkened theatre.
I find it difficult now to understand a time when 'a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible' which is maybe why I found this book so frustrating. It is after all about the things that this young couple are unable to say to each other. Only when they are forced to confront each other with their true feelings out on the pebbled beach of the title did I feel my interest rising. After enjoying Atonement so much I have been wanting to feel the same about everything since but McEwan has yet to hit those heights again for me. Maybe with his next sure to be shorlisted and critically successful novel I will fall in love again.