On a weekend trip to London when I had lent my Kindle to my brother and needed something to read, I picked up On Chesil Beach for sheer superficial reasons: it was thin and would fit into my already over-brimming backpack. Plus, you know, it’s so pretty. I had read it previously during my post-Atonement Ian McEwan phase, but something a friend had recently said about it brought it back to my attention. I wanted to read it again.
On Chesil Beach is a short story with such sumptuous detail and immersion that it feels infinitely longer. But it’s all there, everything you want to draw you in, and don’t let the thin jacket fool you. This is a heavyweight of a novel, evoking the headiness of the time and the vulnerability of the protagonists in a very affecting way.
It is July 1962. Edward and Florence, young innocents married that morning, arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come…
I think I must have missed the nuances of the characterisation the first time round, I remember finding Florence annoying, Edward too, but on the re-read I was so moved by their situation, seeing them torn between love and lust, longing and fear, and knowledge and power. And McEwan skirts so delicately around the sexual abuse Florence experienced from her father as a child, that it wasn’t until my friend mentioned it in passing conversation that it clicked and I understood. Of course.
There’s something powerful about an author who can do that to you, who can embed important detail so skillfully and subtly within their work that it warrants a second glance, a second read, and a whole lot more thought. All hail McEwan. On Chesil Beach is short and sweet and everything you could want in 166 pages and I’m so glad I picked it up again.