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the complete review - fiction
On Chesil Beach
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B+ : well-written, but slighter than it hopes to be
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The Atlantic Monthly
|Independent on Sunday
|London Rev. of Books
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|San Francisco Chronicle
|Scotland on Sunday
|Sydney Morning Herald
|The Village Voice
|The Washington Post
Not quite a consensus, but the majority are impressed
From the Reviews:
- "This is a small novel, 160 pages, but a very concentrated one; a miniature aware of the world beyond it. So when the powerful ending comes (and two years later we could have witnessed a completely different outcome), there's a lot behind it. Some might find the summing up a bit too neat; I didn't. It's the necessary step back, the distancing effect that puts one rotten hour into historical perspective." - Steven Carroll, The Age
- "McEwan, a '60s child if ever there was one, comes to remind us that there were losers, all right, and that there still are. It would be less interesting to term this a generational achievement than a national one. Only Philip Larkin has ever decribed sex more bleakly than McEwan does here. No fumble, miscue, or calamity is omitted." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly
- "Mr McEwan's prose is, as always, intense and visually descriptive, but in this elegantly crafted novel his skill lies in his illumination of an evening taut with emotional paralysis and in his portrayal of missed opportunity. As events move forward to the book's dénouement, On Chesil Beach becomes much more than a simple story of emotions held in check by convention. It is a memorable exposé of how terrible wounds can be inflicted and the entire course of a life changed -- by doing nothing." - The Economist
- "To reveal what lies in store would lessen the pleasure of reading this small masterpiece, though it's hard to imagine that anything could spoil it." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
- "Yet it would be wrong to see this novella as showing the liberated, therapeutically enabled present triumphing unambiguously over the past's stifling repressions and conventions. For, paradoxically, the fullness with which Edward and Florence's inner lives are explored depends wholly on their reticence and embarrassment, on their inability to talk to each other. Indeed, the power of the narrative as a whole derives from the painful seriousness with which they brood, from their antithetical perspectives, on the moment when, as Edward imagines it, "the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman". The book's poignant final pages evince an almost wistful nostalgia for the years before." - Mark Ford, Financial Times
- "Kühl und mit einer Präzision, die ans Bösartige grenzt, verfolgt McEwan in dieser genialen Tragödie der Verkennungen, wie zwei Liebende einander immer wieder verfehlen, um Millimeter nur und am Ende endgültig." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "These currents of excitement and dread are following such different directions that it is hardly surprising that by the end of the novel, which comes quite quickly, just a few hours and about 150 pages later, the "infinite shingle" of Chesil Beach has become the backdrop to solitude rather than communion. This plot may sound inconsequential -- bad sex in English hotel shock! -- but McEwan manages to give it almost tragic impact. This is partly because we come to sympathise so intensely with Florence and Edward's idealistic expectations of intimacy (…..) No, what matters is whether the novel works as fiction. And it does. Some of the prose in the passages away from the bedroom is more workaday than we have come to expect from McEwan, and lacks the panache of his recent work. The exploration of Florence's love of music, particularly, never quite flares into life. Yet within the bedroom this couple's hesitant attempts at intimacy are nuanced and delicately realised." - Natasha Walter, The Guardian
- "The unease in this book is mostly sexual. The young couple are hopelessly mismatched sexually (…..) (I)t is a fine book, homing in with devastating precision on a kind of Englishness which McEwan understands better than any other living writer, the Englishness of deceit, evasion, repression and regret. In On Chesil Beach McEwan has combined the intensity of his narrowly focused early work with his more expansive later flowering to devastating effect." - Justin Cartwright, Independent on Sunday
- "On Chesil Beach, however, is full of odd echoes and has elements of folk tale, which make the pleasures of reading it rather greater than the joys of knowing what happened in the end. (…) The style of the book may seem plain: there is no recourse to the use of cadence for effect, and there are no elaborate sentences or pyrotechnics of any sort. We are, after all, in England, where words mean what they say. So numerous are the images of stability and continuity in these years of peace and prosperity, that the reader takes them for granted. The sheer skill in holding tone, and playing with it, is hidden much of the time. The novel is a pure comedy, but it is told from the point of view of the two protagonists who do not think it is funny at all, and this is managed without making either of them seem tedious." - Colm Tóibín, London Review of Books
- "On Chesil Beach is a linguistic balancing act, each sentence delicately positioning itself both by historical co-ordinates -- an early-Sixties world of Austin 35s and wireless news bulletins -- and by more private reference points -- the separate anxieties and assumptions of the young bride and groom. McEwan, as Atonement demonstrated, is at his best with this finely tuned historical pastiche. The period detail allows him some virtuosic touches (…..) McEwan's forensic account of the warring couple's partialities (…) is perfectly constructed, but fails to throw off the feel of a private technical exercise. In a novel so reliant on bias and conviction, a little more authorly engagement would be welcome." - Rachel Aspden, New Statesman
- "(A) small, sullen, unsatisfying story that possesses none of those earlier books’ emotional wisdom, narrative scope or lovely specificity of detail. (…) (H)e’s given us a smarmy portrait of two incomprehensible and unlikable people." - Michiko Kautani, The New York Times
- "The situation is miniature and enormous, dire and pathetic, tender and irrevocable. McEwan treats it with a boundless sympathy, one that enlists the reader even as it disguises the fact that this seeming novel of manners is as fundamentally a horror novel as any McEwan’s written, one that carries with it a David Cronenberg sensitivity to what McEwan calls "the secret affair between disgust and joy. " (…) If On Chesil Beach is a horror novel, it is also as fundamentally a comedy, one with virtual Monty Python overtones" - Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times Book Review
- "There is a fairy-tale quality to the book, in that everything that follows seems inevitable. The minute currents of tension that change a conversation and a life are so crucial to McEwan's method that it would be unfair to give away every last turn in his narrative. Towards the end, when fates have been sealed, it seems to Edward 'that an explanation of his existence would take up a minute, less than half a page'. Such is the deft compression of McEwan's art here that, in his hands, such a formulation does not seem far from the truth." - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "Communication failure is at the center of his tale, and he evokes it with heartbreaking eloquence." - Kyle Smith, People
- "But after On Chesil Beach climaxes, the masterfully modulated denouement fast-forwards through the decades to come to our present day -- and prods us to consider what this book really is." - Ed Park, Salon
- "Every detail in On Chesil Beach tells the reader that the new age has not yet dawned (…..) Some may call this book a novella, because it is a mere 30,000 words long, but it is in fact a fully realized novel, more than worthy of the grander appellation. Not only is it full of meaningful, organically significant details, but its narrative ebbs and flows in a way that demonstrates the most masterly narrative control. The story unfolds in a perfect manner, withholding now and then for effect, even omitting sometimes, with the result that On Chesil Beach is not only a wonderful read but also perhaps that rarest of things: a perfect novel." - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "The finest passages in On Chesil Beach are the tremulous vacillations experienced by the couple, a sad mixture of stage-fright, clumsy slapstick and tender awkwardness. In the bleak aftermath, the emotional pendulum swings between pity and fury, embarrassment and apology, with each partner's self-doubts and aggrieved resentments interlocking and interchanging. It might, in a way, have been a rather good short story. On Chesil Beach, however, manages to feel too thin and too long simultaneously. (...) The concentration on the consequences of their unfortunate first night seems bizarrely disproportionate, a feeling exacerbated by McEwan's sometimes slapdash plotting elsewhere. (...)On Chesil Beach leaves the reader, like its two confused, disgusted and recriminating characters, utterly unfulfilled." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
- "As it turns out, McEwan’s concern for his characters’ individual humanity and his interest in the larger historical movement end up being somewhat at odds; they refuse, in the end, to embody sociological analysis. Liberation, in this novel, happens somewhere else. But that can only be to the benefit of the humanity of this small but interesting novel. I like it much more than McEwan’s last six novels, at least. (…) The novel is saved by an honest familiarity with individual psychology, and by the fact that it is, really, all about sex, which McEwan certainly does understand. The larger movements of history, however, enter into these lives in ways which are all too much like the novel that Professor Peter Hennessy might write about the period." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator
- "Clean of sprawl and clutter -- not a word, incident or image seems slackly placed -- the book never hardens into the schematic. Where McEwan’s earliest handlings of one of his dominant themes -- attempts to attain and sustain loving partnerships -- often seemed diagrams of male and female stereotypes, everything here is alive with human complexity. (…) Subtle, witty, rueful and sometimes heartrending, On Chesil Beach coalesces these perceptions into a novel that is a master feat of concentration in both senses of the word." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "McEwan exposes the rationalisations and self-deceptions we all succumb to in situations of great emotional uncertainty, the shifts in perception that show what changeable and unpredictable beings we can be to ourselves, let alone one another. In doing so, the book takes us deeper into two people's lives, counter-pointing the tensions of the present with the great backwash of their past and the surging of a future neither can fully see." - Mark Mordue, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Writing in the third person, McEwan gives the reader access to both characters' thoughts with his usual skill, and the comedy of embarrassment, or of the kind of erotic misunderstanding that Milan Kundera used to specialise in, quickly disappears as the marital bed begins to seem more and more ominous. (…) It's a pleasure to watch McEwan fleshing out his characters, expertly shifting chronology and point of view around as he prepares for the coming bedroom scene and its aftermath. (…) Part of the problem might be that McEwan's use of suspense makes you forget that startling revelations aren't the point, that his writing is strongest in its texture and detail and masterly narrative set-pieces." - Christopher Tayler, The Telegraph
- "Because this is a slight book, it would be unfair to detail the unfolding of this evening any further. Suffice it to say that the tiny tragedy of one wedding night -- which has large-scale implications -- is heartbreaking, understandable from both parties' perspectives, and sickeningly unnecessary." - Lionel Shriver, The Telegraph
- "For the reader, the ending of On Chesil Beach comes too soon. Its devastating concluding passage, in which we glimpse the future that flows from the events of the honeymoon night, feels almost like the sketch of a larger novel of which this is merely the first section. Still, the experience of finishing a novel with regret is not so frequent that one should complain of it. Better to say with gratitude that McEwan’s latest fiction is full of richness: of serious thought about the nature of love and human relationships, informed by a poetic sensibility and expressed in prose whose lyricism never errs on the side of self-indulgence." - Jane Shilling, The Times
- "A new book by him has long been an event. This new book, though, On Chesil Beach, is more than an event. It is a masterpiece. The very idea that informs it, fascinating and unfamiliar, is masterly. (…) The novel has felicities which ensure, rather than embellish, the humanity of its treatment of the lovers' predicament. (…) Ian McEwan is serious, but not solemn, in his unfolding of this predicament, and of surrounding disorders." - Karl Miller, Times Literary Supplement
- "This slim novel -- a novella, really -- works as a parable of failed empathy. (…) This backward-looking stance, this assumption that the couple may have prospered had they been born a few years later, risks a charge of smugness. It carries more than a whiff of author knows best. The chapters detailing their respective childhoods and schooling sometimes have the same tone, a too-assured intimation that their pasts neatly account for their present difficulties. But such criticisms fall away when McEwan returns to the wedding night itself, scrupulously describing the mordant, melancholy comedy of it, the tragedy it gives rise to." - Alexis Soloski, The Village Voice
- "(B)reathtaking (…..) (I)t is in no important sense a miniature. Instead, it takes on subjects of universal interest -- innocence and naiveté, self-delusion, desire and repression, opportunity lost or rejected -- and creates a small but complete universe around them. McEwan's prose is as masterly as ever, here striking a remarkably subtle balance between detachment and sympathy, dry wit and deep compassion. It reaffirms my conviction that no one now writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan's accomplishment." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
- "So reich der schmale Roman an Beobachtungen, an Geschichten, an Beschreibungen gerade der immer wieder abstoppenden sexuellen Begegnungen der beiden ist (selten wurde ein Zungenkuss derart zum Abgewöhnen ausgenüchtert geschildert), so eng sind sie geführt. Wenn man diesem Schachtelalbtraum von einer Geschichte etwas vorwerfen kann, dann ist es -- neben der Kleinigkeit, dass McEwan sich im Epilog auf den psychologisch uninteressanteren Edward konzentriert -- ausgerechnet seine Meisterschaft: dass bis ins letzte Bild alles stimmt, dass noch die kleinste Subgeschichte ein Ziel hat, dass kaum Dunkelheiten bleiben. Wie ein wiedergefundenes Meisterwerk des Fin de siècle liest sich Am Strand" - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
- "In seinem neuen Roman Am Strand nun überkreuzen sich diese sonst so genau kalkulierten Pläne, es geraten Literatur und Zeitdiagnose ordentlich durcheinander -- was vielleicht der Grund ist für das seltsam leblose und, schlimmer noch bei dem Thema, lustlose Scheitern dieses Sexromans vor dem Zeitalter des Sex." - Georg Dietz, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
On Chesil Beach centres around the wedding night of Edward and Florence, and McEwan gets right to the point in his opening line:
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.
McEwan describes that wedding night in painful, exacting detail, from the meal they have in their room all the way through to the bitter end on the beach.
He pulls back to fill in background -- their families and upbringing, their circumstances, their relationship -- but then always zooms back in to the wedding night.
And you just know it's not going to go well.
The time is 1962, and Edward and Florence are perhaps even worse equipped than most to deal with sexual difficulty than most of their contemporaries.
They're deeply in love, but the physical has proved problematic during their courtship.
Over the months Edward made some headway, but it never came easy, and Florence doesn't really take to much physical intimacy -- his tongue in her mouth when they, kiss for example.
She has vague ideas of what to expect now, and she's dreading it:
Her problem, she thought, was greater, deeper, than straightforward physical disgust; her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.
being touched "down there" by someone else, even someone she loved, was as repulsive as, say, a surgical procedure on the eye.
Yes, Florence's attitude is pathological; worse yet, she hasn't made it entirely clear to Edward how she feels about this act they're supposed to engage in.
Edward has some sense of Florence's qualms, but he's so over-excited about finally getting this far that he doesn't pay enough attention.
The exquisitely awkward dance they do as Florence tries to maneuver herself around the inevitable is wonderfully captured by McEwan, from both their vantage points.
Marvellously, it comes even worse than expected, as Edward contributes to the mess with his own sexual difficulties (let's just say that his decision to lay off gratifying himself in the days before the wedding looks like it left him more precariously bottled-up than is healthy).
Instead of awkward consummation what we get is sexual disaster.
McEwan doesn't let it end there; indeed, what's decisive is how they handle this mess they've gotten themselves into.
That's what what interests McEwan, and that's where their real failure lies.
They finally get some of the words out into the open, as they finally try discuss sex, but they're not very good at that either -- hardly surprising, given that they've never had a go at talking about it to anyone, on top of the terrible pas-de-deux they were just part of.
Both partners' pasts contribute to the situation.
Edward is used to living if not a lie then at least a very warped truth, having been brought up to treat his mother as if everything she did was normal when, in fact, little is, as she's been unhinged since an accident that left her in a coma for a week when he was a young boy.
His father finally tells him about the accident that left her brain-damaged when he is fourteen, news that's not really news but still changes everything.
"What I've said changes absolutely nothing", his father insists -- but then that's part of the problem.
As before: "the fantasy could be sustained only if it was not discussed", and that's pretty much how they go on.
As for Florence, being a late bloomer is hardly explanation enough for her pathological feelings about sex.
McEwan doesn't come right out and say it, but there are strong hints that a childhood trauma involving her father is at the root of it.
Certainly, there's something off about that father-daughter relationship; even dense Edward notices that.
(It's almost a shame that McEwan had to go that far; surely the unsettling weirdness of sex to a sheltered child of the times might have been enough to get him nearly as far.)
On Chesil Beach is a period-piece, McEwan focussing very hard on that time before the so-called sexual-revolution.
It's not nostalgic, but he is trying to capture an era and he's very explicit about it, constantly reminding the reader of this different time (down to noting that: "This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine" when discussing their meal).
It's not just the sexual mores and understanding that he wants to highlight, either: it's also very much a novel about family circumstances, opportunities, and, ultimately, class.
Edward is the exception among his classmates in going on to university -- choosing London over Oxford, too, in a minor rebellion.
Florence's parents are an academic (her mother) and a successful businessman; complicating the picture is the fact that Edward is hired by her father, his first real job.
Florence is a gifted and ambitious violinist, torn between the different opportunities she has; Edward has little understanding (or true appreciation) of what she does, her classical music remaining all Greek to him.
They're very different people, yet McEwan convincingly presents them as in love -- the one constant, that, however, becomes yet another complicating factor.
After the wedding night McEwan also offers an extended coda, of afterwards.
He focusses almost entirely on Edward here, describing the changes he undergoes and what becomes of him.
It allows McEwan to make his final points -- of realising that a bit of patience, a bit of dialogue, and the power of their love would have been enough, that awkward moments can be handled if they're tackled head-on -- but leaves too much open about Florence (including the question of whether she ever got over her sex-problems).
There's been some discussion of whether On Chesil Beach is a novel or a novella.
The small American edition stretches the book out to just over 200 pages -- and has A Novel printed on the cover -- but it's less a matter of length than scope, and On Chesil Beach's failing is that it remains a mere novella even while McEwan suggests (but doesn't follow through on) much larger ambitions.
McEwan packs events and character-description into it, but he doesn't dare really move beyond the small story of the wedding night.
It's like the notes are here for a larger novel, but everything is like the coda, background to the essential tale, but so much of it that it constantly suggests there should be more.
Successful in large part, the book nevertheless falls short of its larger ambitions, as McEwan chose a middle-ground that isn't entirely satisfying.
Neither a compact novella nor a full-blown novel On Chesil Beach is a very good book, but not entirely satisfying.
Still, well worth reading.
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On Chesil Beach:
Other books by Ian McEwan under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels.
He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.
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© 2007-2021 the complete review
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