I’ve just finished reading the strangest little novel. It was recommended to me ages ago, by one of my dear friends who is extremely literary (She is in fact a published writer!) and whose opinion I trust on all things book related. She told me that the novel was odd, that the premise was a tad bizarre, and, as with most things concerning English literature, she was absolutely right. The novel is called On Chesil Beach and it is by acclaimed writer Ian McEwan (Sidenote: the only other McEwan novel I’ve read is Sweet Tooth which was pretty fantastic and gripping, especially at the end! I should probably get around to reading Atonement soon!)…and I’m still not entirely sure what to think of it. The plot is simple enough: a young couple is newly married and they are both experiencing an inordinate amount of anxiety with regards to the act of consummation. This probably sounds like it would be an awkward theme for a novel and it is – but somehow McEwan manages to deliver a powerful message about such a touchy (no pun intended!) subject.
I’ve come to the conclusion (because I always have to reach some sort of profound epiphany at the end of a story, apparently) that this novel is most specifically about embarrassment and uncertainty, and about the misunderstandings and resentment that can result from not being totally honest and forthright about one’s anxieties and concerns. The husband and wife, Edward and Florence, are seemingly best friends and compatible companions: as the reader receives random snippets of their relationship, it is obvious that they respect each other and that they enjoy each other’s company. The trouble in the relationship comes when Edward and Florence must get physical…neither of them are experienced enough to know how to make the situation less awkward and, without spoiling anything too specific, the event ends in disaster. That seems like a common enough idea though: anxiety about sexuality and reluctance to become so emotionally attached and physically connected to another human being is a common enough experience.
“And she was ashamed.”
“Did she dare admit that she was a tiny bit relieved that it was not only her, that he too had something wrong with him?”
What makes this novel unique, however, and what makes the story a full-fledged tragedy is the way that Edward and Florence deal with their embarrassment.
Rather than being open, honest and communicative, each character hides their nervousness and fear. This too is a common reaction to unwanted anxiety and embarrassment, but in McEwan’s text, we see that harbouring fears and doubts creates distance between the unsuccessful lovers…it ultimately drives them apart and causes them to resent and despise themselves and one another. There are countless moments in the novel when Edward and Florence are close, oh so close, to sorting out their difficulties and mending their relationship, but the fact that they are unwilling to admit to their inexperience and uncertainty causes their embarrassment to be replaced with antagonism and ferocity…emotions that eventually damage their budding marriage beyond repair.
“He stopped a good room’s length away, and that in itself seemed to her unfriendly, and she felt antagonistic in return.”
“God, how irritable she suddenly felt, when minutes ago she was so ashamed of herself.”
“But it was not what she meant, this cruelty was not her at all.”
“He turned and walked away from her, towards the shoreline, and after a few steps came back, kicking at the shingle with unashamed violence…”
“His anger stirred her own…”
What is most ironic, and one could say painful, about this occurrence is that the reader recognizes that both Edward and Florence suffer from the same anxieties – they fear sex and intimacy for different reasons, but their fear is nevertheless the same, and so it is not as embarrassing and shameful as they believe. The reader knows that if Edward and Florence were to just be vocal, if they just gave vent to their internal emotions, they would realize and see the similarities between their situations and could easily find common ground and a reasonable solution. At the novel’s conclusion, Edward begins to understand that a crucial moment in the relationship was skipped – one in which he and Florence could have sorted things out and worked around their situation. But they never get this chance because their anxiety turns into antagonism which manifests itself as resentment and an abhorrence of close contact. The real tragedy of the novel, then, seems to be that an opportunity was missed, that a chance for happiness was overlooked, because the characters were blinded by fear.
What’s the moral of this story then? Probably that couples need to communicate…that there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned conversation to solve any problem…or that speech at least always works better than silence!
Like I said, I’m not sure what to make of this novel…I don’t think I’ll ever be sure! But, it was a quick read, a short little foray into a life I would never want to live! I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a story that will puzzle and provoke thought in them.
Girl with a Green Heart