On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I suppose I should start off by saying I read this yesterday in quite some pain, so maybe that has made me even more intolerant that usual. Not for the first time I wonder at the professional world of book reviewing, this receiving the highest of accolades from the English press. It’s all a crock if you ask me.

This is a fifties/sixties story of the debacle of the wedding night of a young English couple. I wonder if it was a short story that got padded into 165 pages in order to sell on its own, a mish-mash as it is of story line and facts about English society at the time. He wants to have sex, she doesn’t in a way that would be laughably stereotypical but for the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that takes itself so seriously, is so entirely bereft of humour. She is so revolted by anything to do with the idea of sex that when he accidentally ejaculates before he has managed to enter her, in shock and horror she gets dressed and runs to beach and then miles away from the hotel. Dead set. Then when he, recovering from his shame, goes to find her, she accuses him of failure. Generously strewn expletives from me at this point, take them as given. I’ve never read anything so unconvincing in my life.

So, they are in bed, she touches his penis as it is near her vagina and:

He gave out a wail, a complicated series of agonised, rising vowels, the sort of sound she had heard once in a comedy film when a waiter, weaving this way and that, appeared to be about to drop a towering pile of soup plates.

In horror she let go, as Edward, rising up with a bewildered look, his muscular back arching in spasms, emptied himself over her in gouts, in vigorous but diminishing quantities, filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs, and even a portion of her chin and knee cap in tepid, viscous fluid….

What porn director wouldn’t pay good money for a guy who could actually do that. It was so ludicrous that it was some pages before I understood what had happened, I thought maybe he had chundered on her.

…now she was incapable of repressing her primal disgust, her visceral horror at being doused in fluid, in slime from another body. In seconds it had turned icy on her skin in the sea breeze, and yet, just as she knew it would, it seemd to scald her. Nothing in her nature could have held back her instant cry of revulsion. The feel of it crawling across her skin in thick rivulets, its alien milkiness, its intimate starchy odour, which dreagged with it the stench of a shameful secret locked in musty confinement – she could not help herself, she had to be rid of it. As Edward shrank before her [me: poor bastard], she turned and scrambled to her knees, snatched a pillow from under the bedspread and wiped herself frantically. Even as she did so, she knew how loathsome, how unmannerly her behaviour was, how it must add to his misery to see her so desperate to remove this part of himself from her skin. And actually, it was not so easy. It clung to her as she smeared it, and in parts it was already drying to a cracked glaze.

McEwan coyly alludes to the idea that this woman might have been sexually abused by her father for a brief period as a teenager. He never says so. The woman never says so. But one can only assume that all the tedious description of her reading sex manuals wouldn’t have needed to take place if she already knew what was going to happen. On the other hand, when they meet up some time later after he is able to summon up the necessary courage to go after her, there is this:

‘Look, this is ridiculous. It was unfair of you to run out like that.’

‘Was it?’

‘In fact, it was bloody unpleasant.’

‘Oh, really? Well, it was bloody unpleasant, what you did.’

‘Meaning what?’

She had her eyes shut as she said it. ‘You know exactly what I mean’….’It was absolutely revolting.’

….

Edward came out swinging. ‘You don’t have the faintest idea how to be with a man. If you did, it would never have happened. you’ve never let me near you. You don’t know a thing about any of it, do you? You carry on as it it’s eighteen sixty-two. You don’t even know how to kiss.’

She heard herself say smoothly, ‘I know failure when I see it.’

This girl is fucked up and ghastly. The message of the book, after they split up on this night and never see each other again, is that he should have stopped it happening and that everything would have been okay and they would have lived happily ever after if he had been appropriately reconciliatory. Instead of which we are supposed to think his life was a failure – the story of his life is tagged onto the end of the book in a few pages – while weirdly, we hear no more of her life other than being made aware of her success in music.

Me, I think a person who is so neurotic and awful in this situation is scarcely likely to be otherwise okay. Indeed, one of the things she does in the book is organise for her rich daddy to give her fiance a job – a shit job, by the way. Her idea is that she will have her wonderful music career – even playing in an orchestra isn’t good enough for her, it is going to be a quartet and meanwhile, he will work in a shitty job and not get sex because that isn’t on her agenda.

There are so many better done books of English youth and sex in this period that one wonders why anybody would read this. The characters themselves are tedious, the long descriptions of things to do with sex even worse. Stay well away, that’s my advice.

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5 thoughts on “On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

  1. I share your opinion–flat, humorless, unconvincing……but as to the detail of the ejaculation (You just knew I’d go there): When I was a young sperm-carryer, I could and did sometimes hit the bed board or the wall behind it. Well, now I’m 73, recovering from prostate surgery, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know about MY plumbing, happy to divulge way too much information. Of course, for the ladies, a gentleman never tells….

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