Thoughts: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

This is going to be a short one because I read this book back in summer 2022 and my memory is not what it used to be.

That said, I enjoyed it! It’s a quiet book whose action is a painstaking description of a single night, but a) I enjoy quiet things like that and b) of course it isn’t just that. It’s the story of the lives of Edward and Florence leading up to this their wedding night, and then the story of their lives afterwards. Spoilers follow.

I remember thinking it was well done and well paced – I mean, it’s a short book, but I was never bored, and I enjoyed the characters and their lives. The wedding night itself, from where we are looking back and forward, is surprisingly tense (or maybe not surprisingly?), as we see every moment of the lead-up to The Event and not only are we following the excruciating dinner at a strange hotel but we’re finding out what weight each character has put on it, shaped by their different lives.

I also remember thinking that McEwan did a good job of balancing it out – I wasn’t unreasonably annoyed by either character. It would be easy to portray Florence as a prude or Edward as a slightly desperate pervert, or, if you’re a certain kind of writer, both, but McEwan is pretty compassionate towards them both. The time in which it’s set comes into play too, with its changing attitudes towards sex hitting society unevenly and making a mess. Not to mention Florence’s uncomfortable relationship with her father, which hints at something quite dark but never confirms or denies.

In the end it comes down to fundamental incompatibility, wrong place and wrong time, and a couple of unlucky and unwise choices. It’s impossible not to think ‘what if’, and indeed, so does Edward later, after the relief and embarrassment of the divorce. Could he have chosen differently? If things had unfolded differently, or if he had been older, if it had been a different day, if they had held their tempers or said more or less. But things happened as they did, and no amount of rereading or reliving will change that.

On Chesil Beach is a neat little book about how things can change so drastically as a result of such sprawling constellations of circumstances and choices all converging on one point.

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