When Ian McEwan was a much younger author with a penchant for writing clinical tales of death and incest—perverse, rudderless parables of the bruising and bruised—the British press dubbed him "Mr. Macabre."
Lately, though, reading McEwan is more like watching a professional tennis match during which one of the players suffers a crippling stroke. The gameplay, like McEwan's writing, is powerful and elegant and impossibly precise, but to the players its every shot and step is a shock to the system. However graceful the game, it hammers away at its participants until the clot is shaken loose and sent to do its terrible work.
On Chesil Beach (Nan A. Talese-Doubleday, 203 pages, $22), McEwan's affecting new novel, is the story of two still-virginal English newlyweds, each terribly in love, on their honeymoon night in Dorset in the time leading up to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Edward, for his part, is eager for love to hit full flower on a four-poster bed, while his new wife, Florence, views even a rogue tongue during a kiss as a violent, terrifying intrusion. She's stricken both with an idealized love for Edward and a swift-turning nausea at the thought of sex, locked into "a secret affair between joy and disgust." Coyly, McEwan describes this situation as a "stain on her happiness." Still, both Edward and Florence are too polite to, you know, bring it up.
This disconnect between the two would-be lovers consumes the entirety of the book, almost all of which takes place in the short span between dinner and the next morning, at the cusp of their (and presumably our) loss of innocence. In a style sometimes reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, McEwan descends from light English ironies into a rich, patient, near-suffocating immersion in each character's needs and apprehensions—the saddening dissatisfactions of everything left unspoken, and of everything misunderstood.
McEwan treats his characters delicately, compassionately even, but the rising feeling is one of dread—the old-school variety, repressed and Gothic and unbearably tense—as the two reach toward the failure they seem made for. Except this time, instead of begging the characters not to open the door, or to shy away from that dark castle on the hill, you want them to just bust open the dang floodgates already. It's sort of an inversion of the old theme: It's not that the Gothic is a symbol of sexual repression, but that silence and repression can become a labyrinthine horror.
Strange, then, that the book's elegiac final notes still leave me with a haunting nostalgia for whatever it was that went lost along with that terrifying innocence.
Out of the Book
On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach