I recently re-read On Chesil Beach (Vintage 2008) feeling a little fearful that my memory of the novel wouldn’t be matched by the reality of a second read. I needn’t have worried as I found more humour and equal poignancy second time round. What really stands out though is the clarity of the writing and the way in which McEwan can convey emotions with such simple honesty. The innocent young love of newlyweds Florence and Edward seems to veer from enchantment to near disaster with each page moving us towards something unknown but foreboding. With the narrative unfolding on their honeymoon on the Dorset coast, we are brought forward and back through time until as fuller picture of both characters gradually emerges. Unusually, Florence and Edward are equally sympathetic since their perspectives are balanced and so well drawn by McEwan. It is important to emphasise the humour in the novel, mostly found in their respective embarrassment, as well as the delicate innocence of their position. But it is heavily bittersweet. The final paragraph has all the wisdom and regret of hindsight, “Love and patience – if only he had had them both at once – would surely have seen them both through….This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.”
For me, On Chesil Beach is not confined to its setting in early 1960s, pre-sexual revolution Britain. It is a broader lesson in both understanding and love, most especially how the lack of one or other drives us apart and impoverishes our lives in ways that are not always immediately apparent.