On Chesil Beach

I’ve been reading a few pages of On Chesil Beach tonight, a novella by Ian McEwan that I have come to cherish. My beloved sister-in-law recommended it, championing its tragic beauty and insisting that I would certainly appreciate it. I’d read Atonement, so I was familiar with Ian McEwan, and there is nothing nicer than reading something that a family member or friend was impressed or touched by. Not the most uplifting story, in fact, On Chesil Beach is downright depressing. It’s the briefest of stories, essentially describing the first evening spent between a newly married couple and its shocking, sudden end. I almost feel silly writing a brief synopsis, because there really aren’t appropriate words to adequately express the aching poignancy that pervades the novella. It makes my heart hurt. I’m going to include several passages, some that are quite long, but I just couldn’t eliminate any of them.

The first passage is the one that nestled in my mind immediately, and even when I haven’t picked up the book in a while, I remember it with amazing clarity. It’s such a lovely depiction of innocent first love, that time in the earliest days of a new and exciting romance when you’re not quite sure what the other is thinking. You only know that your mind is completely absorbed and enamored by them, and that you can’t quite reveal all of yourself yet.

…he found Florence waiting for him in the shadow of the pavilion. She knew his hours, and had taken an early train and walked from Henley toward the Stonor Valley, with a one-inch-to-the-mile map in her hand and a couple of oranges in a canvas satchel. For half an hour she had been watching him as he marked out the far boundary. Loving him from a distance, she said when they kissed. This was one of the exquisite moments of their early love, when they went slowly, arm in arm, back up the glorious avenue, walking in the center of the lane to take full possession. Now that it was inevitable, the prospect of her encounter with his mother and the cottage no longer seemed important. The shadows the lime trees cast were so deep they appeared bluish black in the brilliant light, and the heath was thick with fresh grasses and wildflowers. He showed off his knowledge of their country names and even found, by luck, by the roadside, a clump of Chiltern gentians. They picked just one. They saw a yellow jackhammer, a green finch, and then a sparrowhawk flashed by, cutting a narrow angle around a blackthorn tree. She did not know the names even of common birds like these, but she said she was determined to learn. She was exultant from the beauty of her walk and the clever route she had chosen, leaving the Stonor Valley to go along the narrow farm track into lonely Bix Bottom, past the ruined ivy-covered church of St. James, up the wooded slopes to the common at Maidensgrove, where she discovered an immense expanse of wildflowers, then through the beech woods to Pishill Bank, where a little brick-and-flint church and its churchyard were poised so beautifully on the side of the hill. As she described each place-and he knew them all so well-he imagined her there, on her own, walking toward him for hours, stopping only to frown at her map. All for him. What a gift! And he had never seen her so happy, or so pretty. She had tied back her hair with a scrap of black velvet, she wore black jeans and plimsolls, and a white shirt, through a buttonhole of which she had threaded a rakish dandelion. As they walked toward the cottage she kept tugging on his grass-stained arm for another kiss, though of the lightest sort, and for once he happily, or at least calmly, accepted that they would go no further. After she peeled her remaining orange for them to share along the way, her hand was sticky in his. They were innocently thrilled by her clever surprise, and their lives seemed hilarious and free, and the whole weekend lay before them.

The next few passages are small, just little bits that immediately resonated with me during my first reading.

He drew her closer, until their noses were almost touching and their faces went dark. He said, ‘So did you think then it was love at first sight?’ His tone was lighthearted and mocking, but she decided to take him seriously. The anxieties she would face were still far off, though occasionally she wondered what it was she was heading toward. A month ago they had told each other they were in love, and that was both a thrill and afterward, for her, a cause of one night of half waking, of vague dread that she had been impetuous and let go of something important, given something away that was not really hers to give. But it was too interesting, too new, too flattering, too deeply comforting to resist, it was a liberation to be in love and say so, and she could only let herself go deeper.

It is shaming sometimes, how the body will not, or cannot, lie about emotion. Who, for decorum’s sake, has ever slowed his heart, or muted a blush?

When the reader is given the history of Edward, the earnest groom, we learn of the tragic event that befell his mother. The passage describing her accident is a perfect example of the expertise of the writer.

There is a certain kind of confident traveler who likes to open the carriage door just before the train has stopped in order to step out into the platform with a little running skip. Perhaps by leaving the train before its journey has ended, he asserts his independence-he is no passive lump of freight. Perhaps he invigorates a memory of youthfulness, or is simply in such a hurry that every second matters. The train braked, possibly a little harder than usual, and the door swung out from this traveler’s grasp. The heavy metal edge struck Marjorie Mayhew’s forehead with sufficient force to fracture her skull and dislocate in an instant her personality, intelligence, and memory. Her coma lasted just under a week. The traveler, described by eyewitnesses as a distinguished-looking City gent in his sixties, with bowler, rolled umbrella and newspaper, scuttled away from the scene-the young woman, pregnant with twins, sprawled on the ground among a few scattered toys-and disappeared forever into the streets of Wycombe, with all his guilt intact, or so Lionel said he hoped.

“…with all his guilt intact.”-Those words, and that passage, while very well written, cause me to cringe and twist with sadness.

Finally, the last lines of the novella…I’m not going to write the entire last page, because I would hope anyone who reads my post who hasn’t read the book might be tempted to read it. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t make perfectly clear that the story is about two conflicted characters who each have burdens to bear. In other words, they have issues! Particularly Florence! While that fact hangs over the novella like a thick grey cloud, I want to illuminate the beautifully written passages, which certain apply to life and love, no matter the context.

Even in his sixties, a large, stout man with receding white hair and a pink, healthy face, he kept up the long hikes. His daily walk still took in the avenue of limes, and in good weather he would take a circular route to look at the wildflowers on the common at Maidensgrove or the butterflies in the nature reserve in Bix Bottom, returning through the beech woods to Pishill church, where, he thought, he too would one day be buried. Occasionally, he would come to a forking of the paths deep in a beech wood and idly think that this was where she must have paused to consult her map that morning in August, and he would imagine her vividly, only a few feet and forty years away, intent on finding him. Or he would pause by a view over the Stoner Valley and wonder whether this was where she stopped to eat her orange. At last he could admit to himself that he had never met anyone he loved as much, that he had never found anyone, man or woman, who matched her seriousness. Perhaps if he had stayed with her, he would have been more focused and ambitious about his own life, he might have written those history books. It was not his kind of thing at all, but he knew that the Ennismore Quartet was eminent, and was still a revered feather of the classical music scene. He would never attend the concerts, or buy, or even look at, the boxed sets of Beethoven or Schubert. He did not want to see her photograph and discover what the years had wrought, or hear about the details of her life. He preferred to preserve her as she was in his memories, with the dandelion in her buttonhole and the piece of velvet in her hair, the canvas bag across her shoulder, and the beautiful strong-boned face with its wide and artless smile. When he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience-if only he had had them both at once-would surely have seen them both through.

Those words are hard to follow, so I won’t even try..

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