There’s something rather disappointing about Ian McEwan’s latest book. It’s not the quality of the writing – that, after all, is rarely a worry when it comes to McEwan. It’s not the accessibility of the characters either, or the setting, or even the way in which his story ends. In fact, apart from this one failing On Chesil Beach is a startling achievement: it engages us from the outset, pulls us into its narrative, then wraps it up neatly at the end without any sense of triteness or heavy-handedness.
So what is this fault? Well, put simply, On Chesil Beach is too short. Why is it that publishers feel the need to wrap up novellas as if they were novels? (I’m looking for an answer other than the obvious ‘to make more money’.) McEwan’s latest is padded out with thick paper, large print, wide margins… and it still only just stretches to a halfway respectable length.
It’s hard to imagine any debut writer having a story this short published as a stand-alone novel, yet because McEwan is one of the literary world’s big earners the public are expected to pay more than twice as much for his work as any other book on the New Releases shelves. He’s good, but he’s not that good. His publisher could at least have done the decent thing and packaged this as a novella with a handful of short stories. As it is, however, we’re left with this slight but thickly padded volume, and a story that’s short enough to devour in one sitting (I’d suggest reading it in your local bookstore one afternoon, and keeping your money firmly in your pocket).
As with much of Ian McEwan’s work, the narrative revolves around one incident, examining its repercussions as they spread out like ripples through a pond. In this instance the incident is one of inaction rather than action, as newlyweds Edward and Florence come together on their wedding night. The year is 1962, and as the world slowly blossoms into the Summer Of Love they find themselves tied to the past, hopelessly old fashioned, and inadequately equipped to deal with the subject of sex. Of course, until now they’ve managed to sidestep the issue entirely: but once the ceremonies are over and they retire to their room, there’s no choice but to face it head on.
The core of their problem isn’t that Florence is repulsed by the very idea of sex, or that Edward is inexperienced and clumsy, but rather that neither of them has the necessary vocabulary, or the freedom, to be able to express these feelings to one another. Instead the encounter goes horribly wrong, and as events spiral out of control they seem to take on a life of their own. The aftermath on the nearby beach is both remarkably simple and perfectly executed, displaying McEwan’s writing skills at their very sharpest.
Once again, however, we’re brought back to the abrupt length of On Chesil Beach. In the final few pages we race through the following years, as if someone has pressed the fast forward button and forgotten to resume play again. In fact the final pages feel more like an epilogue than a true ending to the story, and you can’t help feeling that it may even have been labelled as one if the book weren’t already so short. As the keystone of a short story collection, On Chesil Beach could have impressed us with its economy and insight; but as a stand-alone novel it can’t help feeling like a minor work. Still, I guess the publishers have kept their options open, and they could still include it in a collection at a later date – along with another hefty price tag, of course.