On Chesil Beach: A Novel by Ian McEwan
Reviewed by Buddy Kite
The scene: England in the pre-swingin' 1960s. A young couple on their wedding night. They're virgins. He's about to explode. She's terrified. And we're along for the weird dance that ensues in Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach.
It's a bit voyeuristic. Borderline pervy. And if McEwan wasn't so good at building tension, it'd be incredibly dull. In describing the first moments of the couple's cautious foreplay, McEwan's meticulous attention to detail winds up the yearning -- and insecurity -- absurdly tight. The groom's hand isn't just on the bride's thigh. His thumb, which is "lying patiently like a siege engine beyond the city walls," pushes a stray pubic hair, "rocking it back and forth, stirring in the root, along the nerve of the follicle." The entire novel is rocked forward this way. It's a little gross -- you'll rip right through.
But coming off the heels of his highly praised and "important" novels like Atonement and Saturday, On Chesil Beach just feels light. There are a few passages of remarkable economy in which you get an idea of what it might have been like to be young, sexually frustrated, and anxious about the future in a time and place when you couldn't do much about it. But so what? Where are the big ideas? The literary ambition? Chalk it up as an amuse-bouche, a good summer read, before his next big one.
Books mentioned in this post