One might think that Ian McEwan is treading on slightly dangerous ground in his new novella, On Chesil Beach, having chosen for himself a scenario which, for British readers (at least), will bring to mind smutty seaside postcards and sniggered blue jokes: a young couple on honeymoon find themselves unable to consummate their marriage. Instead, he presents us with a heartbreaking tale of misunderstanding and lost love.There's also a very nice review by J.N.C. Tay (Janet trying to be a bit incognito?) of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, Half A Yellow Sun.
It’s the early 1960’s, a few years before the so-called “sexual revolution” and the advent of The Pill and the accompanying shift in moral attitudes. Girls are still expected to “keep themselves” for a future husband and nice girls don’t “go all the way”. Edward and Florence are pretty typical of their time: they come to their wedding night with no sexual experience.
Both are anticipating the now officially sanctioned act of sexual intercourse with trepidation. Edward worries about how the act might be achieved “without absurdity or disappointment” and is afraid of (as he quaintly puts it) “arriving too soon” while Florence has “a visceral dread” of sex which she sees as a physical violation.
To make matters worse, she has been further put off by a sex manual she has read in lieu of being able to have an intimate conversation with the women in her life. Despite its “cheery tones and exclamation marks and numbered illustrations” the book is written in a formal sexual vocabulary that almost makes her gag in places. She though realises that she has signed all rights in the gloomy sacristy after the wedding ceremony and prepares resignedly to meet her fate.
McEwan fills in the story of the couple’s path to the altar in flashbacks, and draws each as a convincing individual. Florence is a talented violinist who dreams of performing with her string quartet at the hallowed Wigmore Hall. Edward is studying history at University College and wants to write biographies. Both are idealists who actively support CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and, in fact, meet when he encounters her handing out leaflets in Oxford. The later tragedy is compounded by the fact that this is a couple already very much in love. They are physically and intellectually well-matched, and they have already negotiated many of the practical difficulties which might have separated them.
But neither has yet learned how to break free of cloying convention. Neither have an appetite for the heavy roast beef dinner they are served in their room but struggle to finish it because it seems the polite thing to do. They are at liberty to kick off their shoes and run down to the beach but actually don’t because, “for now, the times held them ? a thousand unacknowledged rules still applied.” And so it is with sex.
Marked by clumsiness, down-right ignorance and an inability to communicate with each other about their feelings, their fumbling attempts at intercourse are indeed every bit as disastrous as both feared. McEwan doesn’t flinch from detail (a single kiss is given a page and a half, for example) but the writing is never prurient. Indeed, there really isn’t a word out of place in this beautifully crafted story.
In a moment of disgust and blind panic, Florence rushes out of the room. In their angry confrontation, injured pride stands in the way of any real communication and the conversation has life long repercussions for both.
How ironic it is that in the larger scheme of things their lives are destroyed – not by an atom bomb (as both feared) or by the whims of a dictator (of the sort that Edward is researching) but because the society of the time did not make discussion of intimate matters possible.
The book makes a convincing plea for effective sex education that deserves to be heard in the Malaysia of the early 21st century.
In the print version of the paper there are vouchers to clip that will give you a very good discount on the books. (25% off the McEwan at Kinokuniya and 20% off Adichie's book at MPH).
(Photo stolen from the Age.)