Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan has reached the status of a British John Updike or Philip Roth, where the publication of each new book is a notable event.  It is an appropriate accolade for a writer who has matured from enfant terrible to elder statesman: from edgy stories of sexual irregularity and dramatic violence, to richer investigations of the social and psychological makeup of a people.

Chesil Beach in Dorset is famous to any geography student as being an example of the phenomenon of longshore drift, and drift of a sort is what McEwan’s new book is about.  It tells the story of Edward and Florence, and their first night of marriage in July 1962 (the year before “sexual intercourse began,” as Philip Larkin told us), staying in a hotel near “Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle.”

Both are virgins: Edward has first night nerves, and Florence worries that by marrying him she has brought on the physical intimacy she most fears.  What McEwan does terribly well is to invigorate old staples that we thought we knew, such as Edward’s reciting of political analysis to (as Alan Partridge would put it) ‘keep the wolf from the door,’ which seems both fresh and funny.

Less successful are the pieces of the couple’s past which McEwan gives us: the scenes set before they met seem particularly unnecessary, and have the air of having been spliced in later to fill the book out from story to novella.  And there is a danger of imbalance, when the meticulously detailed account in the first nine-tenths of the book suddenly switches pace and rushes to a conclusion.  Overall, On Chesil Beach is more Amsterdam than Atonement.

But at its best, McEwan’s great achievement, here as in Saturday, is to make the reader feel that nothing could be more important, or urgent, right now than to read about whatever his chosen subject happens to be.  In this case, he makes a vital cause out of a transitional period, for two anonymous young people, for a generation, and for a country; the era when “to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of the cure,” the time when “being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion.”


  1. I’m completely behind in my IM reading, somehow so many people put me off reading Saturday I just never got around to reading it but I better had.He’s one of those writers you really feel you should keep up with on a book by book basis.

  2. I think that’s right, not least because his books tend to be either love them or hate them for me. Atonement and Enduring Love yes, Amsterdam and The Child in Time no. To be honest, On Chesil Beach falls more into the second category, but I’m practising being kind on this blog… 😉

  3. I caught the tail end of a discussion about Chesil Beach on TV last night ? Kirsty Wark and guests PD James and Anthony Horowitz amongst others.It was getting a bit of a roasting from what I could gather.

  4. That’s interesting – Newsnight Review, I take it. The Guardian has today given it a fairly glowing report. I do wonder if McEwan is something of an untouchable for some of the papers: so obviously gifted that they infer that everything he does is unquestionably brilliant.

  5. I always have a problem with I M. I thought Saturday started really well. I was totally fascinated by the characters and followed the story.I thought the fracas with the car was great and was very scared when those people turned up later. Then ,for me, the plot takes over, I just didn’t believe in the characters any more.Enduring Love was a similar experience.The beginning is totally fantastic and I was very interested in the story because I was once stalked like this. Again though about 2/3rds through it goes decidedly wonky.

  6. Hey someone’s clock is wrong. It’s 8.45 a m here.I know that because my son Daniel is kicking me off the computer because Glastonbury tickets go on sale at 9am .

  7. I also find IM uneven but still required reading – thought Amsterdam was particularly poor. There is an early play called ‘The Imitation Game’ which is a favourite of mine, as is ‘Saturday’ which I think really captures the atmosphere of central London. I look forward to reading this new one after Easter and will probably post something about it in South Belfast Diary.

  8. I thought this book was exquisitely written and McEwan is certainly a master of “the defining moment,” but I just couldn’t get into the subject matter. I think it suffers from a problematic ending as well, though a necessary one. (Now, how can the ending be both?) I found Edward far more sympathetic than Florence in many ways.

  9. I do keep up with McEwan on a book by book basis. He is my favorite writer of all time. I hated this book which is not to say it is badly written. It was just a waste of my time and now I have to wait for his next.

    I loved Saturday and Atonement is probably the best contemporary novel I have read. I hated the events in Atonement but I loved the book. I suppose I am way in the minority about Chesil Beach but I could not have been more disappointed. Every McEwan book has been a special event for me but this one.

  10. I read this book recently and wanted to know what you thought of it. I made it a point to write down my thoughts before reading yours.

    It could be my incapability to draw the inference, but I can’t make out from your review whether you liked the book or not. Or more importantly, whether you recommend it or not. Is this intentional? As in, you don’t want to give a clear green or red signal?

    Also, I find certain sentences confusing.

    “Overall, On Chesil Beach is more Amsterdam than Atonement.”
    For someone like me, who hasn’t read any other McEwan and who is not a regular follower of your blog, I don’t know what this sentence means. Am I missing something here? I certainly am, because the other commenters seem to comprehend.

  11. Anaamica, it’s quite well known that many see Atonement as McEwan’s finest hour, whereas Amsterdam is a slight novel that isn’t all that great but has had greatness (or a level thereof) thrust upon it by winning the MAN Booker Prize, something Atonement didn’t do but was in the running for. There are those who believe Amsterdam shouldn’t have won the prize and Atonement should, which is a ridiculous idea, if only because they weren’t competing against each other.

    On Chesil Beach, then, is a light read in comparison to Atonement. It’s enjoyable enough but it’s more of a short story than a big novel and deserves the faintest praise. McEwan is no doubt capable of better.

  12. Now, that’s clear! Thanks for that, Stewart.

    I did enjoy On Chesil Beach, and I want to read more of McEwan. Would you suggest picking up Atonement or may be read Amsterdam first and then save the best work for later?

  13. Hi Anaamica. I think Stewart has filled you in pretty well on Amsterdam/Atonement. For my part I’d skip Amsterdam altogether and go straight for the big one. Enduring Love is also well worth a read.

    As to whether I liked it or not, I had mixed views. However I’ve read other opinions since which have raised it in my estimation, so I would probably get more out of a second time (and when I first read it, I wouldn’t have contemplated reading it a second time, so it must have improved in my eyes!). Sometimes I prefer not to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on a book and just try to give an impression of it instead.

  14. ‘On Chesil Beach’, being a novella, seemed a bit of a interim project to me, between Saturday and his next big one. His books are normally gripping and engaging, although sometimes I feel the climax of his novels (often a bloody denouement) are pretty prosaic compared to the more subtly developed themes that proceed them. My favourite of his, which I think was made into an obscure film, was ‘The Innocent’. It has all the ingredients of a top class thriller, but with all the emotional/psychological complexity that make McEwan’s novels so rich. He often gets a bashing, dividing critics and readers alike, but he’s surely one of the most consistently imaginative British writers today. jamesewan

  15. Thanks James. In fact The Innocent is the only one of his novels which I haven’t read.

    I liked Saturday, On Chesil Beach less so, but I don’t think he has surpassed Atonement in my view. There is also something which irks me somewhat in the way so many of his protagonists tend to occupy the financial or social upper echelons of society – surgeons, composers – but I suppose he just writes what he knows about in that respect. Apparently his next novel is about global warming.

  16. The surgery sequences in Saturday seemed suspiciously textbook to me, not impressionistic enough. It was like he had interviewed a surgeon or two on a particular procedure, and then just tidied up the language a bit.

    Global warming, eh? Aiming a bit low there …

  17. I think that’s exactly what he did James – isn’t a neurosurgeon (Neil Kitchen or something like that?) credited in the acknowledgements as a source? Given the length of the surgery sequences, perhaps he should have been credited as co-author.

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