This short novel takes place on the first night of their honeymoon, with many flashbacks, and at the end a great flash forward, and at the core an enormous misunderstanding … It is difficult to judge whether to give away the plot of this book...is to lessen its impact on the reader. McEwan writes prose judiciously; his books seem to depend on plain writing and story and careful plotting, with much detail added to make the reader believe that these words on the page must be followed and believed as the reader would follow and believe a well-written piece of journalism. On Chesil Beach, however, is full of odd echoes and has elements of folk tale, which make the pleasures of reading it rather greater than the joys of knowing what happened in the end.
Our appetite for Ian McEwan’s form of mastery is a measure of our pleasure in fiction’s parallax impact on our reading brains: his narratives hurry us feverishly forward, desperate for the revelation of (imaginary) secrets, and yet his sentences stop us cold to savor the air of another human being’s (imaginary) consciousness. McEwan’s books have the air of thrillers even when, as in On Chesil Beach, he seems to have systematically replaced mortal stakes — death and its attendant horrors — with risks of embarrassment, chagrin and regret … The bulk of On Chesil Beach consists of a single sex scene, one played, because of the novel’s brevity and accessibility, in something like ‘real time’...The situation is miniature and enormous, dire and pathetic, tender and irrevocable. McEwan treats it with a boundless sympathy, one that enlists the reader even as it disguises the fact that this seeming novel of manners is as fundamentally a horror novel as any McEwan’s written.
Convention used to portray the ardent groom and the blushful but receptive bride. Edward lives up to the first billing, but Florence is a bit more than blushful; she is, to be precise, frigid and hysterical. It’s not even a matter of closing her eyes and thinking of England; the very thought of penetration alarms and repels her. At intervals, McEwan sketches the backstory of each … After an exquisitely painful exchange of words on the beach where Florence has run—both parties are depicted as relishing the saying of things that cannot possibly be unsaid—the curtain falls on the marriage, and it’s plain that the two will never be able to meet, or to speak, again.