On Chesil Beach is so, so elegant. And terribly short, only 166 pages in my paperback copy. It is really only two scenes: Florence and Edward’s wedding night, and what follows. The narrative is laced with flashbacks that explain how they ended up at a hotel in Dorset, newly married and very worried.
But the base – or centre – of it, is their hotel room, Florence and Edward sitting opposite each other, waiting to go to bed. Edward can’t wait, Florence dreads it.
I hesitate to call it a novella; the proper definition escapes me and I’ve misplaced my Dictionary of Literary Terms. But it is not a full novel, the scope is too limited. It reads more like an experiment: a modernist’s take on a moment, expanded and heavily edited, the details polished till they gleam. An examination of how one moment permeates the rest of the main character’s life. Edward is the main character, really. Though we get insight into both their minds, he is the one we come closest to. It’s Edward’s story we are told.
‘They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. They had just sat down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn.’ (p.3)
McEwan described plot as the novel’s heartbeat at a reading. There is no plot here, not really. But he uses tension very cleverly to create the need to turn pages. And he breaks off at crucial moments to torture his readers with digressions. When Florence and Edward move into the bedroom, we get to the edge of the bed before we are cut off. Part two starts with a statement much like the one that opens the novel: The narrator breaks out and speaks directly to the reader. ‘How did they meet? And why where these lovers in a modern age so timid and innocent?’ (p.37)
He also said that he would like to create the perfect first page, the page that no reader over the age of 16 could fail to turn. He doesn’t do that here, I’m sure it is possible to put down. The opening page, however, draws you in, and foreshadows the outcome, as well as mirror McEwan’s style throughout.
The most elegant thing, beside the structure, is his transitions. By way of an emotion, he jumps off into a memory from an action. While it is a digression, it doesn’t feel forced or unneccessary. And it contributes to the building tension.
This is written in free indirect style, which means that a narrator recounts for the reader what happens, from the point of view of the characters. It gives the narrative a duality: we are privy to the characters’ reflections, through the narrator’s account. The reader is presented each scenario twice, from both Florence and Edward’s point of view. Free indirect style is one of my favourite things to read. I love the distance between the narrator and the subject, the opportunities it grants the writer to summarise, and break into the narrative. I love the complicity of the narrator and the reader. McEwan’s free indirect style is always beautiful.
I see McEwan’s fiction as a continuation of the modernist tradition, like most current literary fiction. I’ve seen him called postmodernist repeatedly, and I disagree. But I will get into my thoughts on modernism and postmodernism later, it deserves a post of its own.
On Chesil Beach reminds me of Atonement; the moments leading up to the point of no return, the crucial point delayed, the examination of events in retrospection and finally the confession, or rather, in this case, the realisation that he regrets it. It ebbs out into a hasty summary following the events of the book, and quits on a very Atonement-esque note of regret.
I have to include the author’s note in the back:
‘The characters in this novel are inventions and bear no resemblance to people living or dead. Edward and Florence’s hotel – just over a mile south of Abbotsbury, Dorset, occupying an elevated position in a field behind the beach car park – does not exist.
In conclusion, On Chesil Beach is good, but not superb. It is elegant, enchanting, even, but not challenging. Read it and enjoy it for what it is: a well-written story.