Reading Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is rather like listening to chamber music on a Sunday afternoon, it seems at first that nothing too dramatic is to occur. The five chapters, or movements, whose muted themes are gradually and ineluctably unfolded, are meticulously and evenly constructed in spare clean prose. We, the readers, begin to piece together the clues and narrow down the period to a particular year and feel buoyed by having chosen(I was thinking 1960) a year close to the actual year of 1962, as the two newly-weds, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting celebrate their first night at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At this moment, sombre notes from the cello and viola bring up the ghost of Philip Larkin. And yet, though lines from Annus Mirabilis arise briefly like the flotsam of our memory, they subside and settle once more like the stones on Chesil beach to the broader order that the author wishes us to attend.
Ian McEwan explores Edward and Florence's background with equanimity and we begin to see how the trajectories of these two restless lives have come to interact. I have always found it fascinating how people's lives come together and this short novel does not disappoint. Edward thinks the turning point of his life was in 1954, when, aged 14, his father took him to the bottom of the garden and told him that Edward's mum was in fact brain-damaged:
all the tiny shifts and realignments in his life seemed crystallised in this new knowledge.(p.74)
A figure out of the past, a "distinguished-looking city gent in his sixties with bowler, rolled umbrella and newspaper" had negligently handled the door of a train carriage and upon a hard braking it had swung loose and struck Edward's mother in the head. And this gent "scuttled away from the scene" like some great man of history leaving victims in his wake. One could possibly see the beginnings of Edward's life trajectory taking shape from this very moment.
And Florence's life is seemingly altered irrevocably by her father while her mother, a rather distant and cool intellectual professor, has provided little solace and Florence seeks out an intellectualized warmth of spirit in her violin playing.
It is a novel that the reader can turn over again and again in their thoughts like the waves washing and sorting the stones on Chesil beach. The muted themes take on greater context. The respective influences of their parents in their own family triangles, and the randomness of their quite different lives intersecting on a day they were both restless and wanting to break away, leads to their own decisions and indecisions taking on greater weight as they begin their slow courtship.
There is that decisive scene on the beach near the end of the book, where Edward castigates Florence by saying that she was acting as if it was 1862 and not 1962. For us the readers, we can possibly invest this with irony. As A. N. Wilson in his interesting book, God's Funeral, has suggested, the 1860s were equally revolutionary in how the young began to slough off the strictures of the past. At this moment I thought of The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. It was set in 1867 and written during the 1960s and published in 1969, and the setting is that other Dorset coastal site, the city of Lyme Regis. I have just started to reread this novel and it feels like a good shift in perspective.
Although On Chesil Beach does show us a picture of a certain period on the brink of change, we can also see the perennial and universal themes of relationships in all their variations and see how fragile and difficult they can be. We can only hope that in 2060 there will be such perennial themes to explore. We can only hope that the stones on Chesil Beach will still exist to be sorted and washed by a tidal flow.