Ian McEwan's new book is small — probably no more than 40,000 words — and starts off almost like a fairy tale:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
Yes, it was a long, long time ago in 1962, just a year short of the "Annus Mirabilis" revealed in a famous poem of Philip Larkin's. Edward is a 22 year old budding historian prone to over-excitement and sudden incongruous violent rages. Florence is a violinist, trying to form a professional string quartet, who harbors hidden fears and perhaps a repressed past. And as they eat dinner in their hotel room — the bed in the next room visible through open doors — from the opening pages of On Chesil Beach you know that this evening is not going to turn out well.
Most of the novel takes place within an hour or two on that fateful night, with flashbacks along the way and a sad but satisfying epilogue at the end. The omniscient narrator probes deep into Edward and Florence's psyches and (as in the opening sentence) comments about their inadequacies to communicate in either words or gestures.
And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all. (pg. 119)
The turns of McEwan's novels often hinge upon a misinterpretation, a flawed understanding, a not-quite-adequate attempt to communicate. The proper words can be redemptive — I'm thinking of the reading of "Dover Beach" in Saturday or Briony's last novel in Atonement — but if the words aren't said, they can't save us from ignorance and misery.
The themes of On Chesil Beach will be familiar to McEwan fans; the tale is haunting; the parable is clear.