On Chesil BeachIan McEwan’s latest novella, On Chesil Beach, has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Interesting to note because the rules of the Man Booker stipulate that it cannot consider the novella form for the award. Regardless of its word-length, On Chesil Beach is an impressive entanglement of unspoken thoughts and unrequited desires, what McEwan best describes as being “trapped in the moment by private anxieties”.

Set just before the sexual revolution (as poet Philip Larkin wrote, “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three”) McEwan’s omniscient narrator details the wedding night of virginal couple, Edward and Florence. It is a telling wrought with a sharp awareness of time and place: our occupations and opinions at a certain time in life, and the personal responsibilities we have to accept for them in the future. Later on Edward replies to his future mother-in-laws probing about “our history and our guilty natures”, by saying, “The difference between then and now was more important than the similarity”.

The narrative alternates between the night in question, and the back-story of Edward and Florence’s relationship. In the beginning, the narrator’s voice is a little discomforting, almost austere, as if the characters might be a historical case study. This sustained detachment quickly comes to the fore, though, highlighting the inherent humour in some of the situations: Florence’s growing anxieties while reading a “modern, forward-looking handbook for young brides”, the nauseating use of phrases and words like soon after he has entered her and penetration. And Edward’s ultimately flawed plan to abstain from self abuse before the wedding night. After setting up the story, McEwan seems to forget his studious reflections on historical context and goes in for the tragi-comic. Alternating between back-story and the shifting tensions of the wedding night allows McEwan to move from the giddiness and comfort of the first blushes of romances, to the fallout from the failed first attempt at making love.

In McEwan’s previous work, he became the master of the unexpected displeasure. Unlike some of his more sensational stories, On Chesil Beach is wholly unremarkable, yet it moves along with a compelling inevitability. His excessive descriptions, occasionally trying and lingering on the absurd, work to build-up and release tension, such as the anti-climactic sex-scene between Edward and Florence: “In horror she let go, as Edward, rising up with a bewildered look, his muscular back arching in spasms, emptied himself over her in gouts, in vigorous but diminishing quantities, filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs, and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid.” That McEwan does not use the word ‘doused’ seems to be the limit of his restraint.

However, far from lampooning these characters, McEwan gives them a common tenderness. The couple seems the culmination of a generation, where class and, invariably, culture clash. There wedding night, for all its failings, could be the eve of the sexual revolution. Yet, the similarities between July 1962 and now, overwhelm the differences. Our unspoken anxieties, separate of where they are historically situated, are still just human anxieties.

Advertisements