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[130] On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

Novella Reading Challenge #2

“She watched him, willing him to go slower, for she was guiltily afraid of him, and was desperate for more time to herself. Whatever conversation they were about to have, she dreaded it. As she understood it, there were no words to name what had happened. There existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other. And to argue about it was even further beyond her imagining. There could be no discussion. She did not want to think about it.” (139)

In 1962, a young newly-wed couple arrives at a hotel on the Dorset coast for their honeymoon. Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting have only been married for eight hours but unlike those who usually consummate their marriage with plenty of intimacy and love-making, they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come. McEwan exercises a masterful subtlety and force to unfold an event packed with intense mental struggle and heaviness of silence. What is not spoken, what is implied in between the lines, what dread and impatience, what cluttered thoughts—these are all signs of the couple’s faltering journey to a point of no return.

Why these lovers of modern age are so timid and innocent (and they don’t show any sign of feigning) I have no clue. But that they were raised in a way to not feel the broth of emotions might ring the truth about their fears. Florence’s mother never shows her any affection, let alone an embrace, a hug or precious time together. Edward grows up in a protected state of innocence by the absence of the term that identifies his mother’s condition—she is brain-damaged. The label dissolves intimacy and cooly measures his mother with a public standard. With so much burden on their back, Florence and Edward are somewhat emotionally impaired to cope with the marriage.

Florence is in love with Edward but she dreads intimacy. Her anxieties are more serious than what she dreads: it is a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness for sexual intercourse. The heightened squeamishness stems from her inexperience in feeling love, for she wants to be certain of Edward’s love for her that is not measured by carnal desire and sexual passion. That her whole being is in revolt against the prospect of entanglement of the flesh makes her perform the act as duty, to please him without betraying her lack of interest. Albeit Edward has a long history of engaging with Florence’s shyness (evasiveness), anger that he fights and struggles to keep at bay arouses a darker reckoning: After such humiliation as her open revulsion, his self-dignity finally registers an insult. Savoring the full deliciousness of the injury and wrong she has inflicted on him, elevated by a mawkish sense of himself as being wholesomely in the right, he decides to preserve her as she was in his memories.

On Chesil Beach is not about sex despite some graphic nature in a page or two. Nor is it about sexual tension. Sex is only the medium with which McEwan plays out the extreme and awful consequence of two people’s intrinsic difference in the scope of love. How often are we wrapped up in our ego and fear that have we been more open and patient we can save a relationship? How often do we take understanding for granted out of wishful thinking? How often do we miss the opportunity to change by doing nothing? The book mindfully exposes how, in relationship, one is often fettered by his being unsavvy of the other’s thoughts and needs.
 

7 Responses

  1. In the old days, girls were taught to “not give it up” or suffer dire consequences, that on wedding nights, they were terrified instead of joyful.

    Your review seems even. I have read others that absolutely hate this work and those that looove it.

    A company was building little beach houses similar to what was described in the book for about $400,000 (I think) I can’t find the article, but when I do, I will send it to you.

  2. Perfect timing. I started listening to the audio version of this yesterday on my commute, and I should finish it by the end of the week. I’m fascinated thus far with McEwan’s ability to so nicely use his metaphor. Can’t wait to finish and review this one.

  3. I have this on my list of books to read. Having enjoyed Atonement so much, but being a bit leery of reading his other books for fear they wouldn’t live up to expectations, Chesil Beach seems a worthy second foray into his writing.

  4. […] malls. During the most recent trip there in April I had the pleasure to find trade paperbacks of On Chesil Beach and A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian. Distributors of Hong Kong bookstores are usually from […]

  5. […] about Oliver Twist. 3. Ian McEwan—I don’t remember much about Atonement, but I enjoyed On Chesil Beach; would Saturday be a good choice? 4. John Steinbeck—I have no clue. Maybe the train ride […]

  6. […] story. The brooding, the muttering under the breath, the standoffish silence all remind one of On Chesil Beach as the air is charged with tension. But The Comfort of Strangers is creepy that every turn of the […]

  7. […] Also reviewed by: Reading & Reviewing, Dolce Belleza, Caribousmom, Small World Reads, Bart’s Bookshelf, Everyday Reads, The Bluestocking Society, Bookie Mee, Care’s Online Book Club, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook. […]

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