When we were young – On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, book review

This is one of the books I bought for almost nothing at the English bookshop in Geneva before leaving for Berlin.This was me “magnanimously”(as I like to think of myself) giving a second chance to Ian McEwan, having read and (maybe surprizingly) not much liked “Atonement”. My main issue with it, I think, was that I found the style somewhat overcrafted, and was annoyed by Briony’s character – as you’re supposed to be, of course, but I couldn’t go past my annoyance of her, and this feeling of constant irritation while reading made me judge the whole book as overly dramatic. How a book about such a subject can be overly dramatic, I don’t know (me, being overly judgemental for no apparent logical reason about probably very good books? never!).

Anyway, I’m glad I purchased “On Chesil Beach”. This is about one night, a young couple’s wedding night in England in the 1960’s. They are young, they love each other, it could be simple but it isn’t. We alternate between Charlotte and Edward’s point of views: their anxieties, their hopes, their ignorance of all things of married life and especially of sex. They are touching, with their wish to be free of class and society, of starting afresh on their wedding day, and yet so entrapped, so predetermined, by they backgrounds, families, expectations and what they feel their roles should be.

I couldn’t say it is a entirely new reading experience. I think there probably was a time where such books – family stories, character novels, centred around a specific event and going back and forth from it, repressed feelings and class relationships told with alternative narrators – were most of what I read. But for that genre, it sets the bar high. It is masterfully done, and written – not overly dramatic, but poetic, and empathic – it depicts the daily human experience so close to the truth, so minutely and allows you to live, for a few pages, in this particular England, at this particular time, with Edward and Florence.

I’ll leave you with the very end of the book, to give you an idea of the melancholic tone.

“This is how the entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was blurred, receding against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.”

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2 thoughts on “When we were young – On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, book review

  1. I hate to say it, but I think some of Ian McEwan’s novels seem insubstantial in comparison with the writing that made his name. That said, I did enjoy ‘Chesil Beach’ but I don’t think it’s a patch on his early work.

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    • I haven’t read any of his early work. I’m glad I picked this one as I sort of got what the fuss was about -writing stylewise, plotwise there really isn’t much, but it didn’t disturb me. Apparently one of his novels is about Berlin (the Innocent) so I was wondering if I should pick it up, have you read it?

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