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on chesil beach

27 december 2007

Two of England's most distinguished novelists published fortuitously similar novels in 2007: Ian McEwan produced On Chesil Beach and Graham Swift published Tomorrow. Both are domestic suspense stories; both involve 1960s courtships and decades-long secrets; both involve couples on a beach, though they have contrasting memories of the time they spend there. On Chesil Beach is shorter, tauter, and frankly, better. In some ways it shows McEwan employing a more Graham-Swift-like approach to narrative than he's previously used, and that may be the most interesting parallel of all.

While both are Booker Prize winners born in the late 1940s, McEwan and Swift have cultivated distinct styles. McEwan is postmodern, a plotter of elaborate indeterminate metafictions, full of Möbius strips and weird excurses from conventional storytelling. Swift is by Graham Greene out of George Eliot – if that's not too appalling an image – alternating intense entertainments with larger Victorian-scale efforts like Waterland and Ever After.

Tomorrow is the less interesting of the two fictions. It is narrated by Paula Hook in the course of a long night's journey into the following morning. She and her husband Michael have long planned to tell their twin children Nick and Kate a momentous secret on their sixteenth birthday, and that sixteenth birthday is now, well, tomorrow.

Swift's novels tend to trade in bitter, even violent secrets, but the secret in Tomorrow is so innocuous that one imagines the twins reacting with a giant "So what?": in fact Paula herself imagines this reaction once or twice as she apostrophizes the sleeping kids. It's so unpowerful a secret that I'm tempted to reveal it here (and in any case, Paula reveals it to the reader about three-fifths of the way through). But there is a "spoiler threshold" that a reviewer must informally acknowledge. If something bizarre happens in the first chapter of a novel, it's no spoiler to reveal it; it's more hook than spoiler. But Tomorrow defers its secret long enough that, despite its relative mildness, it will remain inviolate here.

When a story hinges on a not-too-interesting revelation, that simply means that the storyteller is after something other than suspense. In Tomorrow, Graham Swift is after a leisurely study of a successful middle-class couple that has grown up with the 20th century. Born in 1945, Mike and Paula Hook are children of a more repressed era who embraced the sexual license of the 1960s, only to retreat quickly to a fervently-desired monogamy. But no era is without its problems. Afloat on money and buoyed further by their overflowing love for each other and for their twins, Mike and Paula are going to be all right, though – unlike the protagonists of most of Swift's other, and better, novels.

The theme that no era is without its problems is invoked at the beginning of McEwan's On Chesil Beach.

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. But it is never easy. (3)
A few years before Paula and Mike would melt easily and permanently into each other's arms and lives, Edward and Florence begin their marriage in a state of hideous difficulty. He is sex-starved, insistent, frustrated by Florence's ante-nuptial reticence. She is simply revulsed by the prospect of the act, driven to take the lead sexually by her very antipathy to it, just to get it over with. Patient understanding is not in his repertoire, and eager abandon is not in hers. The results are not Tomorrow-like, let's just say.

Even before "sexual intercourse began," in Philip Larkin's famous phrase, it was certainly possible for newlywed awkwardness to be dispelled by all sorts of conversational techniques and intuitive understandings. Sexual disasters don't happen just because it's a few years prior to the Summer of Love. So McEwan's task is to create two characters who will be believably uncompromising on Chesil Beach. Florence is a violinist, rapt in her art, a woman of great physicality who expresses that physicality in the form of music. Edward is darker. A history "first," a scholar of considerable potential, he is (like Mike Hook in Tomorrow) one distinct stratum below his wife in the complicated and fanatically rigid class structure of modern England. Also like Mike, Edward never fulfills his academic potential. But where Mike is a decent bloke who retrains as a journalist and finds the Midas touch, Edward is haunted by a tendency to violence, a basically neurological propensity that recalls themes from McEwan's novel Saturday. That tendency, deftly explored here, makes the breakdown of communication on the beach convincing. And the trend in McEwan's work away from the magical, the contrived, and the bizarre toward the psychologically realistic, advanced in Saturday, continues to even better effect here.

Not that Tomorrow is unconvincing. I buy it; it just doesn't interest me very much. Tomorrow evokes some of its best effects as its central couple worry about a missing cat. On Chesil Beach, by contrast, does its best stuff in a coda that is sort of Atonement Lite: a somber reflection on what might have been and what can never be retraced and tried again. It's minor McEwan (to borrow a line from The Squid and the Whale), but it's very good McEwan all the same.

McEwan, Ian. On Chesil Beach. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

Swift, Graham. Tomorrow. New York: Knopf, 2007.