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When the Sixties were stifling rather than Swinging

Set in 1962, just before ‘sexual intercourse began’, Ian McEwan’s small but perfectly-formed novel tells the story of how a whole life's course can be thrown by one incident.

Emily Hill

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Tory leader David Cameron read it on his way to Epping. Fresh from proclaiming that ‘rudeness is as bad as racism’, and on his way to canvass in the local elections, the Leader of the Opposition in the UK reportedly leapt on a tube train (the greenest and most efficient way to travel, of course), found an empty carriage with spotless red-patterned seats, crossed one leg comfortably over another, patted down his briefcase by his side, and opened the book. England’s green and pleasant land rattled away into the distance as a weary-looking commuter dozed against a glass partition; but Dave didn’t notice, for he was engrossed in On Chesil Beach, according to accounts in the Guardian and the Daily Mail.

Ian McEwan should pat himself on the back: you know you’ve made it as a phenomenon if David ‘call me Dave’ Cameron is doing his darnedest to suck some of the moment out of you. (There is no question that Cameron being spotted with On Chesil Beach was a PR set-up.) But don’t let that put you off buying McEwan’s new, neat, 166-page novella. For it is a small but perfectly-formed masterpiece.

On Chesil Beach is set in 1962, just before the dawn of the sexual revolution, the loosening of behavioural codes and the first blasts of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. Middle-class, repressed and virginal, Edward and Florence honeymoon at a seaside hotel by Chesil Beach, the beautiful pebble stretch on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, England. They have their whole married lives ahead of them as they nervously eat their meals and contemplate the evening ahead: Edward with intense desire and Florence with deep-rooted fear. ‘Florence suspected that there was something profoundly wrong with her, that she had always been different, and that at last she was about to be exposed.’ The disaster of their first sexual encounter means it will also be their last.

In the short space of four chapters, their backgrounds, tastes and love are fleshed out in subtle vignettes. McEwan consciously makes On Chesil Beach a story, in an oddly vernacular sense, by explaining things simply and directly, like a wry, authoritative voiceover in a documentary film. He describes the social landscape of an England from not very long ago, making Edward and Florence’s private tragedy all the more understandable by inserting references to the time, the period, the menu, the reading material: ‘This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine’; ‘He always had a paperback book, usually history, in his jacket pocket….’ McEwan does seem to be, as the book jacket says, at the height of his powers. The prose is indented with beautiful turns of phrase. As Edward walks towards Florence across Chesil Beach he is ‘an indigo stain against the darkening shingle’; the bad sex is really horror sex thanks to the precision of McEwan’s phrasing.

This is McEwan’s eleventh novel, and it’s a surprise and a pleasure on many levels. It veers in a different direction to his last novel, Saturday, which was laden by laborious and intricate descriptions of the day in the life of a surgeon, the blues-fingering of a teenage guitarist, the reading habits of ‘Daisy’ (the surgeon’s nauseating-sounding poet-daughter), and its charting of a ‘significant’ day in modern British history (the anti-war protest in Hyde Park in February 2003 when hundreds of thousands of people effectively said ‘NO!’ to Tony Blair). In On Chesil Beach, McEwan makes a welcome return journey to the crisp beauty and thrill of his previous great triumph, Atonement. Unlike Atonement, however, On Chesil Beach stops where it should: perfect and compact in structure, there isn’t a line nor a word out of place.

McEwan’s prose is shaven down to smoothness like the pebbles on the beach, and it flows like a novel from another time altogether. He manages to conjure the past without ever evoking nostalgia for it. This is no hymn to innocence; rather it is a tragedy, the story of a total and sudden breakdown in communication which solidifies into an irrevocable loss. McEwan’s choice of year is significant, of course. Placing the story of Edward and Florence at the beginning of the Sixties he eschews the contemporary perception of that decade as a singular era of psychedelics and freedom. Larkin’s lines are poignant for Edward and Florence, whose crucial moment comes when the Sixties were still stifling rather than Swinging:

‘Sexual intercourse began in l963
(Though just too late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.’

As in Atonement, as in his best short stories and in earlier novels like Black Dogs, in On Chesil Beach a lifetime hinges on one incident; on one encounter which could have gone one way or another, and on the sad, slow, inevitable fallout from it. ‘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.’

At no point does McEwan slip into the macabre of his early career. And although one might remember the grand, worked-out themes, the greater tides of politics and history, the sharpness and wittiness and the barbed, piled-up vocabulary of his early daring work, still one does not miss it when reading this new novella. There is no brand of evil seeping through and no one twists the knife; instead it is plain and unsensational, a brilliant character study and an urgent read. It is also a weepy. I wonder if Dave had a tissue handy?

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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