“They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”
The opening line of On Chesil Beach sets the whole book out before you like an expansive, inviting fairway with a distant green inviting triumph or disaster in equal terms.
This is a trip, just as in Atonement, through the crippling static electricity that fucks up common sense in the English class system. A generation on from Atonement (in 1962) it covers familiar ground, the class divide, unspeakable things that need to be spoken, guilt, anxiety and foolishness wrapped up in a comedy of manners. Perhaps this is McEwan’s masterpiece. It’s short and to the point and yet the expanse of descriptive prose that this book crams in, tardis-like, is breathtaking. Barely three pages of dialogue punctuate this book. Instead it is a two-sided insider’s view of how the denoument, inevitably comes to be.
The characters are vivid, believable, kind of likeable (despite their demons) and certainly sympathetic. It is one of McEwans’s great strengths that he can build a range of male and female characters that one understands and likes despite, or because of, their frialties. Not many others are as capable, as often as he is.
The book builds itself around a series of ripsnorting set pieces that, as in every McEwan novel, suddenly and, usually unexpectedly, pull the rug out from his characters’ and his readers’ feet and then sets about explaining why and rebuilding a sense of equilibrium. The letter scene in Atonement obviously springs to mind in this respect as does the unforgettable supermarket scene (see I’m talking in screenplay terms here) in A child in time. Saturday is built around this structure too.
As for the Booker?
He gets my vote every time.
If I was a betting man, and I am. I’d be placing a few bob on it.