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Sunday, 6 March 2016

Off Chesil Beach

I re-read "On Chesil Beach" yesterday. It is only a short book, a novella really,and I read through it in two sessions which suggests that I was gripped by it, which I was, but I finished feeling strangely disappointed and have been wondering why.

The story is a simple one, set in 1962. Two educated young people (Florence and Edward), from very different social backgrounds, meet, fall in love and marry. They are both virgins and on their wedding night experience a sexual trauma which results in their immediate separation; they never see each other again. As the title suggests the crisis of their relationship occurs on Chesil Beach.

Image result for chesil beach mcewanIt feels to me that the book is both too long and too short. For example, why does McEwan continue the story after the separation to tell us what happened subsequently to Edward? And why, if he wants to tie up loose ends, do we get told almost nothing about Florence's subsequent life? It seems to me that the book might better have ended when Edward returned to the hotel to find Florence gone. That would of course have made it even shorter. In fact, as I think of it, this seems to be an over-extended short story. It is the sort of story William Trevor might have written and he would not have been tempted to pad it out. 

On the other hand McEwan, who is such a good writer, could certainly have developed this into a longer, more satisfying, 'proper' novel. Hardy would have done it well. I don't, for example, feel that Florence's asexuality was at all convincing given her background as described. Nor do we hear much about what Edward and Florence did together before they were married, apart from repeated references to Edward's sexual frustration and Florence's sexual fears. We do hear about Edward's 'brain-damaged' mother - what does that add to the story as it stands? But the back stories of both characters could have been developed to good effect in a longer book - not padded out, developed in a satisfying way. 

I feel that it is barely credible that two sensitive, serious and moderating people like these would have parted forever as a result of one bad experience and a verbal skirmish. Surely they would have found some temporary common ground, returned to the hotel, studiously avoided further physical contact that night, and re-grouped in the morning? I feel a bit like Edward - rather frustrated!

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