I have yet to read a novel by Ian McEwan that does not leave me breathless. He certainly does not fail to amaze with On Chesil Beach, an exquisitely hypnotic novel of a traditionalist society’s suppression of visceral human urges. Taking place in 1962, the novel portrays the promise of a generation lost to the expectations of a culture ruled by class, wealth and assigned gender roles.
On Chesil Beach is a character study of Florence and Edward, a newlywed couple spending their honeymoon in a beachside hotel. Due to the characteristic reticence of British society in the 40s and 50s, the couple has only rudimentary knowledge of sex and is unfamiliar with such a level of emotional intimacy, and their struggle to get their bearings on this new territory is at times painfully comical. Both of them stake their personal identities on fulfilling the societal expectations of marriage; Edward defines his masculinity on his ability to please his wife, while Florence feels obligated to serve her husband as a wife should.
Florence, a gifted violinist with the beginnings of a promising career on the stage, is the privileged daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Edward is a simple country boy with a history degree at the University of London. By means of interior monologue and cross-cutting between time periods, McEwan poignantly portrays the youthful innocence of their courtship as well as the environments that shaped them. McEwan possesses shrewd perception and deep empathy of suppressed human nature and its inability to comprehend and articulate its own desires.
The way McEwan writes makes me keep turning the pages until the book is finished, at which I am left wanting more. He wields all the right words to speak to the depths of the human psyche, the very thoughts and sensations thought to be indescribable. You can open this book to any page to find startlingly evocative writing to make you gasp.
In short, On Chesil Beach is an exceptionally beautiful novel. Among the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings, Ian McEwan writes with commitment to an honest portrayal of the human condition, and while we all like our thrillers and mystery novels, I consider McEwan a breath of fresh air among generic bestsellers.