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.”