"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."
So Ian McEwan begins his latest novel, a short but highly charged work of fewer than 180 pages. The year is 1962 and the newlyweds are Edward and Florence, names that reek of an old world the '60s would soon transform.
When the book opens they are being served dinner in their hotel room on the Dorset coast of England by two trussed-up local lads who seem as awkward with the occasion as they are. In the distance the waves of Chesil Beach can be heard breaking, a sound of "gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against the pebbles".
Initially, McEwan's writing is restrained and formal, a quint- essentially British tone befitting the time in which it is set. One thinks of old BBC radio plays and "hears" the story being told. It would be easy to mistake this as tame fare indeed but for a sly humour and confidence percolating beneath McEwan's voice:
"This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a glazed cherry ... It would not have crossed Edward's mind to have ordered a red."
McEwan's intent, however, is not drawing room comedy. Ominous descriptive traces like the "hissing against the pebbles" and far rawer feelings are pulsing within a few pages. The internal mechanics of the book quickly reveal themselves as we discover who Edward and Florence are (he an aspiring historian, she a young violinist), diving into their thought patterns and family memories, reliving the romance between them and returning to the events of the wedding night as seen through the eyes of each.
Virtually everything that happens in On Chesil Beach occurs during this one evening and the tidal intensity, the back and forth between Edward and Florence, is palpable as it leads us down, finally, to the beach itself and the book's climactic scene.
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.
As the extent of Florence's fear of sex becomes clear - "her whole being was in revolt against the prospect of entanglement and flesh ... sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but the price she must pay for it" - we are clued into Edward's long-standing awareness of her repressive personality. Florence's genuinely loving affection, along with her passion for playing the violin, has allowed him to deceive himself of what must be "her richly sexual nature" and what he mistakes for simple shyness. Florence, of course, is at pains to make it seem this way. Edward, not entirely insensitive to these tensions and resistances, tries to be understanding, to take their wedding night slowly. By the time she is moaning in disgust at his touch he is interpreting it as the sound of ecstasy.
It's hard to say more without giving away the plot of this slender book. Suffice to say the emotions and ideas are profound in what might seem like the narrowest of circumstances. And though the focus remains overwhelmingly intimate - newlyweds in a hotel bedroom, mutual concerns about when they will have sex and how it will go - McEwan summons up the Cold War atmosphere with textures like the wireless playing downstairs, from where Edward hears the word "Berlin" and to where Florence wishes she could flee, "to pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on their floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned seriously into the news, into the gale of history".
McEwan has always been a political writer, as demonstrated in works as varied as his film script for The Ploughman's Lunch (1983), a critique of life in Thatcher's Britain, or his last brilliant novel, Saturday (2005), an attempt to grapple with the nature of violence and human connectedness in a post-September 11, 2001, world. His reflections in The Guardian on the events of September 11 still stand out among the best things written at the time. Whether penning an elegy for a deceased author like Saul Bellow or speaking with deep ambivalence about the Iraq War, he remains committed to the engaged notion of a public intellectual.
And yet there's a provocative, almost mathematical coolness to his writing that undercuts the comforting status of a literary good guy.
His debut collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), opened with the tale of a boy telling you, in a bemused tone, how he raped his sister. McEwan's ability to evoke the psychotic pull of a murderer in The Comfort of Strangers (1981) or a stalker's obsession in Enduring Love (1997) similarly displayed his taste for evil and violence in ways that appeared irresistible, almost mystical.
This interest in the sexually aberrant, the bizarre and the psychologically unsettling led to McEwan being nicknamed Ian Macabre early in his career. Over time McEwan's books have become less overtly strange (one of his most acclaimed short stories, Solid Geometry, deals with a man who discovers how to fold his wife up like a piece of paper and make her disappear) and more everyday in their intensities. And yet the same neo-gothic traits of lives lived in secret and looming darkness infect all his works with threat and fear.
When McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam it was largely seen as a lightweight work in his career, a tightly plotted entertainment. On Chesil Beach is similarly short, but far more serious, harking back to the compressed nature of his early and most haunting short stories, as well as McEwan's long-running interest in the random and banal ways ordinary lives can be shattered.
It is proof that no life is completely private or shut off from the world, that we can be victims of ourselves and, if we're unlucky, our historical moment, too.
- Mark Mordue
* First published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books, April 6 2007