September 5, 2007

On Chesil Beach

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On Chesil Beach is a treatise in fiction form on the role of sex and communication in a relationship. Meticulously set in a time we are frequently reminded is most definitely not our own, this story of two virgin newlyweds on their first night together could not be more familiar if it was set at the Statler this past summer. In fact it is set in a Georgian hotel on Chesil Beach, England, 1962.
The book’s plot, which follows the couple’s journey in their honeymoon suite from the dinner table to the bed, is paralleled by an embedded narrative that tracks their journey from childhood to the freedom and maturity their union brings. For them, “to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of the cure … but they separately worried about the moment, sometime soon after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to each other.” Edward is specifically worried about “arriving too soon” while Florence is experiencing a “visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.” All she has to go on is a handbook for young brides whose frequent use of the word ‘penetration’ “suggested to her nothing but pain, flesh parted before a knife” and is integral to her continued revulsion.
The artistry of McEwan’s writing style beautifully compliments his characterization of the two young people; the readers’ insight into their thoughts and pains is a cruel form of dramatic irony placing the reader almost palpably between the two bodies, with desire on one side and fear on the other. The descriptions of Florence’s violin-induced power and calm are sensuous and full of promise, while the details of Edward’s plans for a biographical series on obscure historical figures shed light on his humanism and his interest in the individual as a force. The true pain for the reader stems directly from these descriptions; the depth of the young couple’s intelligence, diligence, and beauty is displayed in direct conflict with their complete inability to talk about each other’s desires, needs, and fears.
The text is peppered with statements beginning “This was before … ” and “In just a few years time … ” reminding the reader of the differences between 1962 and now. These reminders, however, rather than serving to box in Florence and Edwards’ experiences as though they were only possible at the time, are the glue that holds the analogy of the story together. The tone of these insertions is at once retrospective and almost mocking, as if to say to the reader: this story is completely a product of its time, why are you still living it? In essence this is a parable; it takes place in a very specific time, a very specific place to prove the point: any time, any place, any person.
On Chesil Beach is a perfect literary Polaroid of 1962. But even more impressive, if possibly disheartening, is the clarity this snapshot has maintained. As it says in the first paragraph, “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulty was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.”