Martin's Reviews > On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
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Jul 05, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2008books, favorites
Read in July, 2008

"On Chesil Beach" is a tight, tiny gem of a book. Almost a novella, the writing is so precise and evocative and meaningful that it takes virtually no time to read at all. I read "Atonement," also by Ian McEwan, a few years ago and enjoyed it very much; the same dark perspective on human relations and keen insight into behavior and the inner life is at work here. The book is "just" a study of a young couple’s wedding night in England, 1962. We learn about bride and groom in turn, peering briefly but pointedly into each family, assembling just enough pieces to understand and appreciate the inevitability of the book’s tragedy. The plot’s not central here – though the final chapter I found as suspenseful and gripping as anything I’ve read recently – rather, the careful observations of two characters at an intersection in their lives, at a time of intersection and change in the world, create all the drama and tragedy one could ask for.

The power of language, naming, and words takes on huge importance in the book, and interestingly enough, that power is a force for good and ill, but mostly ill. So often the "power of language" takes on a heroic role in contemporary fiction (one would expect contemporary writers to place such an importance on their stock in trade), yet in "On Chesil Beach" most of the labels and names and many singular words have terrible consequences. Fascinating, surely, to see the power of language to destroy and damage instead of elevate and enlighten or redeem. In fairness, it is often the lack of appropriate words that bring about disaster: “...there existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other” (169-170). But at the same time, plenty of words, especially labels, do enormous harm in the course of the text.

Ultimately "On Chesil Beach" is an absolutely beautiful book: emotional, truthful, and as rigorous in its writing as poetry. Truly, no paragraph, sentence, or even word goes to waste. The meticulous descriptions of the main characters' interactions took me aback – I felt huge sympathy and sadness for Edward and Florence, and absolutely understood all their actions and missteps. These felt like utterly real people, in a completely real situation, saying and doing the things I could imagine myself doing and saying in just such a scenario. It was uncanny, flawless, and truly impressive.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Gary (last edited Feb 25, 2009 03:49AM) (new)

Gary Martin: I loathed every word of this book. So much so, that I stopped readinga t around page 180. I have since learne dthat the last 30 or so pages contain the emotional punch of the book. I think the two characters were so unsympathetic - her with that damn violin and him with that reticence - and disdainful that I just couldn't care what they did and where they ended up.

Revolutionary Road is astonishing. It is one of the best books I have ever rea; it captures the 50's, smoke, martini lunch, grey flannel suit, Metro North to Connecticut era perfectly. Bon appetit.


Martin I didn't think they were unlikable at all -- just the opposite I thought they were perfectly human and well-drawn. I understand Flo's passion and I understand Edward's difficulty expressing himself. I think the novel does an amazing job showing each character's familial situation -- not to mention the (changing) cultural and political climate -- to show (if not explain) why Flo and Edward are the way they are. No? I thought those peeks inside each home show insinuate and explicate so much, in such a subtle, keen way. I think part of the magic of great fiction is to make a distant time (1962) and an unfamiliar situation (England, Chesil Beach, etc), and imbue it with universal feelings and themes that can connect us to that time, help us understand the similarities and differences, and engage our sympathies at the same time. I felt enormous sympathy for these two poor kids (kids! 22 or 23!) as they so tragically navigated their impossible situation, encumbered by all their different pasts, experiences, expectations, cultures, families, et al! I cared about them -- real, tragic, flawed people! -- a ton.


Dante Martin,

I think you hit the nail on the head. The characters are well drawn and the circumstances compelling and believable.

What I always find amazing about McEwan is how he gets us into his characters heads, what they're seeing, feeling and thinking. And this is even more amazing when succeeds (as here) at doing it with characters for whom I felt little empathy (at first).

For these reasobs you should read McEwan's "Saturday.", if you haven't already done so.


Sandy Thomson I think this reviewer hit the nail on the head, as one person said. Excellent review of an affecting book which is, in and of itself, written by an extra-ordinary (not just 'extraordinary') hand. I don't have the talent to say it as well as this reviewer has but I agree with the review almost 100%.


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