On Chesil Beach is the latest book by Ian McEwan and I read it recently. Now I know what you’re thinking, why on earth do you trust him after Atonement? Why spend your hardly-earned cash on one of his books. Well in my defence it was a 3-for-2 deal, plus I had heard good things about it. Anyway bought it I did and read it too. And you know what? it’s good.
But it’s not completely – how shall we say? – unproblematic. It has at its centre an idea, a pivot to the story, not quite a plot twist but certainly a, erm, plot kink, that is inherently frustrating. I don’t want to give too much away but it has a somewhat downbeat ending. The structure of the book also lends itself to a certain disappointing dilemma. The heart of the book is about sex. The central event in the book is the wedding night of a couple in the 1960s. We meet them first on this night as they enjoy their dinner together and look forward (or not – he’s eager, she’s fearful) to the consummation of their relationship. Then, in various flashbacks we get the story of their lives and their meeting, everything leading up to this point in fact.
Now as I said about Atonement McEwan writes about sex well. It feels real and therefore carries a certain erotic charge. Plus the building anticipation of how that key moment will play out creates a drive to know what will happen. So unfortunately, the rather well written passages about their earlier lives, which are actually most of the book, feel at times like a distraction from what I really want to know.
Maybe I’m just shallow.
Still, even with this and the not-so-happy ending, I still prefer On Chesil Beach to Atonement. It’s well written and evocative. I think it should be required reading for anyone who thinks sex education is a bad idea.