Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan




(Highly Recommended)




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College-age readers of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, On Chesil Beach, may be tempted to ask their grandparents about whether the world of 1963 that he presents in this novel resonates with their memories of the time. For the grandparents who read this book, I expect many may answer that it’s none of your business. To say nothing when words are needed is part of what McEwan presents in this finely written novel whose action centers around the honeymoon of 23-year-old Edward and 22-year-old Florence. Both virgins, with unspoken fears about sex, their silence speaks loudly in the action that follows. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Section Two, pp. 45-49:


How did they meet, and why were these lovers in a modern age so timid and innocent? They regarded themselves as too sophisticated to believe in destiny, but still, it remained a paradox to them that so momentous a meeting should have been ac­cidental, so dependent on a hundred minor events and choices. What a terrifying possibility, that it might never have happened at all. And in the first rush of love, they often wondered at how nearly their paths had crossed during their early teens, when Edward descended occasionally from the re­moteness of his squalid family home in the Chiltern Hills to visit Oxford. It was titillating to believe they must have brushed past each other at one of those famous, youthful city events, at St. Giles’s Fair in the first week of September, or May Morning at dawn on the first of the month— a ridiculous and overrated ritual, they both agreed; or while renting a punt at the Cherwell Boathouse—though Edward had only ever done it once; or, later in their teens, during illicit drinking at the Turl. He even thought he may have been bused in with other thirteen-year-old boys to Ox­ford High, to be thrashed at a general knowledge quiz by girls who were as eerily informed and self-possessed as adults. Perhaps it was another school. Florence had no memory of being on the team, but she confessed it was the sort of thing she liked to do. When they compared their mental and geo­graphical maps of Oxford, they found they had a close match.

Then their childhoods and school years were over, and in 1958 they both chose LondonUniversity College for him, for her the Royal Col­lege of Music—and naturally they failed to meet. Edward lodged with a widowed aunt in Camden Town and cycled into Bloomsbury each morning. He worked all day, played football at weekends and drank beer with his mates. Until he became embarrassed by it, he had a taste for the occasional brawl outside a pub. His one serious unphysical pastime was listening to music, to the kind of punchy electric blues that turned out to be the true precursor and vital engine of English rock and roll—this music, in his lifelong view, was far superior to the fey three-minute music hall ditties from Liverpool that were to captivate the world in a few years’ time. He often left the library in the evenings and walked down Oxford Street to the Hundred Club to listen to John Mayall’s Power­house Four, or Alexis Korner, or Brian Knight. During his three years as a student, the nights at the club represented the peak of his cultural expe­rience, and for years to come he considered that this was the music that formed his tastes, and even shaped his life.

The few girls he knew—there were not so many at universities in those days—traveled in for lectures from the outer suburbs and left in the late afternoon, apparently under strict parental instruction to be home by six. Without saying so, these girls conveyed the clear impression that they were “keeping themselves” for a future hus­band. There was no ambiguity—to have sex with any one of these girls, you would have to marry her. A couple of friends, both decent footballers, went down this route, were married in their sec­ond year and disappeared from view. One of these unfortunates made a particular impact as a cau­tionary tale. He got a girl from the university ad­ministration office pregnant and was, in his friends’ view, “dragged to the altar” and not seen for a year, until he was spotted in Putney High Street, pushing a pram, in those days still a de­meaning act for a man.

The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tall tales about America. The blues he heard at the Hundred Club suggested to Edward that all around him, just out of sight, men of his age were leading explosive, untiring sex lives, rich with gratifications of every kind. Pop music was bland, still coy on the matter, films were a little more explicit, but in Edward’s circle the men had to be content with telling dirty jokes, uneasy sexual boasting and boisterous cama­raderie driven by furious drinking, which reduced further their chances of meeting a girl. Social change never proceeds at an even pace. There were rumors that in the English department, and along the road at the School of Oriental and African Studies and down Kingsway at the London School of Economics, men and women in tight black jeans and black polo-neck sweaters had constant easy sex, without having to meet each other’s parents. There was even talk of reefers. Edward sometimes took an experimental stroll from the history to the English department, hoping to find evidence of paradise on earth, but the corridors, the notice boards, and even the women looked no different.


When the worst possible words are expressed, there’s no retreat. On Chesil Beach captures innocence and the consequences of an inability to talk frankly.


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2007 issue of Executive Times


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