“On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan : A sort of review (ish)”

Date of writing : 19/06/2014

It could be said that Ian McEwan has a mastery of language that brings an intense palpability to his descriptive passages, but I feel that to do so would be to miss the larger part of what makes his writing so wonderfully captivating and believable. What shines through for me is his profound understanding of what it means to be human – an understanding that can only have been gleaned through a lifetime of sweet and painful experiences seen through a retrospective lens of deep intelligence. Having recently read McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and found myself unexpectedly drawn in to a book of a genre that’s not traditionally been a part of my standard library selection, I decided his other books were probably worth exploring.

The prison library is lamentably small, and I’ve fairly quickly exhausted all the science fiction I consider to be worth reading.   Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, Iain M. Banks, Philip K. Dick, Michael Crichton, Frank Herbert, Alastair Reynolds – these names may give you an idea of my leanings. I tend to gravitate towards not just sci-fi, but what often gets called ‘hard’ sci-fi. It’s a source of continual frustration for me that sci-fi usually gets lumped in with the ‘fantasy’ genre, which to me is something entirely different, and often involves one or more dragons. Don’t misunderstand me – I love The Lord of the Rings, and have a lot of respect for the likes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – it’s just that there’s an awful lot of dross out there that I resent having to wade through to find what I’m looking for. Terry Brooks, for example, seems to have churned out a huge pile of apparently popular works that in my estimation are little more than pale imitation ‘Pan Pipe Moods’ variations on a theme of Tolkein. There are innumerable writers whose dubious paperback artwork features an over-stylised dragon of some description, and I now don’t even read the backs of these before returning them to the shelf with a sigh. Anne McCaffrey is a particularly prolific offender in this regard; I really tried to enjoy reading about Acorna the Unicorn Girl, but found myself completely failing to care. Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent again …

‘On Chesil Beach’ is a relatively short book in which – on the face of it – not a great deal happens. It’s apparent brevity, however, belies the depth and richness of the picture McEwan manages to paint of the intersection of two lives, and the way they pivot about a moment in time. Filled with finely embroidered images – which he manages to construct using an elegant economy of words – there is an intense and distressing familiarity about the characters’ internal lives, which he causes the reader to almost inhabit. He sketches beautifully the basic insanities of thought itself, and the roles we can trap ourselves into playing. Like an introspective jazz musician finding endless variations and nuances in what at first might seem a simple theme, McEwan takes the time to carefully examine and explore the intricacies of a moment in a way that somehow lends beauty even to the tragic.

The story is set at a significant period in recent social history that mirrors the movement of the characters into greater self-understanding and maturity. While they find themselves on the threshold of joining what they consider to be the adult world, western society itself is on the cusp of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. In part, therefore, the book forms a commentary on the shifting values of the period, but this is an all but secondary aside to the main exploration of communication in an early-stage relationship, and what exactly it might mean to love someone.

To say too much more would be to risk spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, so I’ll just give some concluding remarks.   If ‘On Chesil Beach’ were a film, then I’d be giving it the personally rare accolade of five stars. I don’t know if it has been adapted for screen, but I hope not, as I can see it presenting some severe challenges for a director – indeed, I can’t imagine how it could be done without losing the essence of what makes it great. The book essentially presents a vignette of a single moment, made more complex and intimate with a little back-story and a little after-story, which works wonderfully in the medium of a short novel. With reflection, I wonder how much of the resonance it found in me relates to the way it beautifully illustrates how whole lives can pivot on a single conversation. In summary, I very much recommend it.