On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

June 20, 2007 at 12:16 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, Eloquence)

chesil.jpg On Chesil Beach is a gem of a novel, a small and tightly wound masterpiece. Its very brevity makes it tricky to decribe the plot without giving too much away. The story concerns two young lovers at midcentury, just before the decade of the 60’s broke wide open, spreading wild abandon and sexual heedlessness over the youth of several continents. Philip Larkin’s famous lines have been frequently quoted by reviewers of this novel:

‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) -/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

Of course this novel is gorgeously written, and in addition, it is elegantly structured. We first meet Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew at a crucial juncture in their shared history. McEwan then takes the reader back in time to the beginnings of their relationship – and even further back, in fact, to childhood and family life. These were drastically different experiences for Florence and Edward; we are once again reminded that falling in love sometimes has little or nothing to do with shared interests or backgrounds. As we learn more about these attractive young people – Edward the robust, life-loving brawler and Florence the gifted musician – we come to care deeply for them both. Our stake in their ultimate fate grows accordingly. After the sortees into their respective pasts, McEwan returns us again and again to the present, increasingly fraught moment. Thus, urgency vies with memory, washing up and then receding, like the waves on Chesil Beach.

Three more points: First, there is a wonderfully titled article in Spectator Magazine: “The Magus of Fitzrovia, in his Prime,” by Matthew d’Ancona. (Fitzrovia, where McEwan lives, is an area of Central London.) Toward the close of this piece, d’Ancona expresses his unabashed admiration for the author of On Chesil Beach: “I admit that Ian McEwan is a hero of mine: a man of letters and liberty, sceptical, decent and free.” Oh, I shall joyfully jump on that bandwagon with both feet, and my literature-loving heart pounding merrily!


Ian McEwan


Second: There is a two minute video trailer posted on Youtube; have a look at it. If you’re lucky, the full length film may be playing in a bookstore near you:


Third: This is a quintessentailly English novel. It put me in mind of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach:”




  1. Cristina Lozare said,


    I photocopied some of the pages that just tugged at my heart.

    How our lives could change so drastically, with words left unsaid.

    I just realized that even when you will not be working I could just log on to your website and read you.

  2. An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Children by Claire Messud Digging To America by Anne Tyler Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon* The Whole World Over by Julia […]

  3. Ian McEwan, Connoisseur of Dread « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The London press pursues McEwan with an avidity otherwise reserved for Amy Winehouse. shortly after “On Chesil Beach” was published, David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, was photographed reading the […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Bridge – Mary Lawson The Other Side of You – Salley Vickers Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan Trauma – Patrick McGrath Cleaver – Tim Parks […]

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