Ian McEwan and the
Honeymoon from Hell
ON CHESIL BEACH BY IAN McEWAN
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Every year Literary Review, a London journal, hands out its infamous “Bad Sex”
award. This dubious honor highlights bad writing about (mostly) good sex. But
if an award were given for good writing about (mostly) bad sex, Ian McEwan
would win it hands down for his latest effort On Chesil Beach.
McEwan has merely dabbled in erotic writing before. The
library scene in Atonement may have been steamy, but it
was the shortest coupling in English fiction since the
wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am episode in The French
Lieutenant’s Woman. In McEwan’s last novel, Saturday,
a young woman in London undresses, but merely to recite
a Matthew Arnold poem. (Ah, life must be so much more
civilized across the Big Pond!) But now McEwan devotes
an entire novel to a honeymoon night gone terribly astray.
An interesting conceit underpins McEwan’s tale. He sets his
novel in the period immediately before the sexual revolution.
On a summer evening in 1962 two newlyweds, Edward and
Florence, finish their awkward dinner at a hotel on the Dorset coast, and
anticipate the first night of their honeymoon with mixed emotions. Both are
virgins, and each has reasons for anxiety.
Edward is shy, inexperienced and nervous about his ignorance of amatory
matters. He worries about his self-control and the risk of, in his words, “arriving
too soon.” But at least Edward has a fair amount of enthusiasm for the night
ahead, which is more than one can say for his spouse. Florence views the
approaching event with fear and repulsion. Her only source of guidance is a
handbook, whose illustrations, cheery tone and exclamation points serve
merely to sharpen her apprehension.
McEwan takes this simple set-up, and works wonders with it. Over the course
of almost two hundred pages, he charts the ebb and flow of the couple’s
wedding night with extraordinary deftness. He avoids all the pitfalls inherent in
this story, which could easily lapse into cheap irony or crude comedy, and
instead crafts a story rich in psychological insight and deep compassion for his
characters – compassion that the reader comes to share.
Artfully juxtaposing his narrative of the honeymoon night with flashbacks and
recollections, McEwan brings his two characters to life. Florence, the child of an
affluent Oxford family, is a violinist with great aspirations for her ensemble, a
string quartet, which she cajoles and prods with an intensity and self-
confidence that is noticeably lacking in other spheres of her life. Edward is the
child of a primary school headmaster and a brain-damaged woman whose
mood swings and memory lapses perhaps contribute to his own unstable
temperament. During his teenage years, he gets into street brawls on the
slightest pretext, but eventually discovers a passion for medieval history that
may point the way to a future career, or perhaps only to a temporary escape
from the gritty realities of his day-to-day life.
McEwan ranks among our greatest living novelists, but though I count myself
among his admirers, I sometimes find fault in his plots, which tend to rely
heavily on unlikely coincidences and all-too-clever twists and turns. He is the
master of the surprise ending, but sometimes the astonishment – as in works
such as Amsterdam or Saturday – is achieved in a manner that is forced and
unconvincing. But in On Chesil Beach, McEwan dispenses with the flashy and
dazzling effects, and succeeds through sheer poise, intelligence and solid
writing. His tale of Edward and Florence will surely rank among his finest works.
The reader can see -- perhaps even better than these two naïve souls -- how
this couple might overcome their differences and the challenges of their
conjugal union. But they are bedeviled by their emotions, their innocence and,
above all, their inability to talk frankly about their situation and expectations. In
truth, McEwan has done something quite difficult here. With his mastery of
words, he has depicted how our lives can unravel through the words we are
afraid to say, the crises we refuse to acknowledge.