Size matters. Or so it seems with literature. From Dickens to Dostoevsky through Pynchon and Franzen, the culture typically equates great books with big books. Even with authors who have shown early mastery of the shorter form, such as James Joyce and Saul Bellow, such works are seen in retrospect as warm-ups for the longer novels on which their reputations rest.
Thus it was no surprise when Ian McEwan both enlarged his readership and elevated his international renown with Atonement (2003), a novel that spanned decades and was about twice as long as the slim, unsettling volumes for which he’d previously been known. He followed with Saturday (2005), which also seemed epic in comparison with his early work – though its scope was a single, particularly eventful day.
In the wake of those bestsellers, it will be no surprise if On Chesil Beach, his return to the shorter form, is received as a slighter achievement, a stopgap between big books. Never before has McEwan focused his fiction so narrowly, detailing little more than an hour in the 1962 wedding night of British newlyweds. Yet the psychological subtlety and richness of detail are as acute as they are in his longer novels, with the compression rendering this achievement all the more striking.
In crucial respects, this novel should not be linked with his early fiction, for those novels were not only shorter than Atonement, they were colder, frequently darker and more sinister. There was almost a clinician’s precision in the bloodlessness of McEwan’s prose. By contrast, On Chesil Beach allows readers to achieve an empathy with both of its 22-year-old characters that perhaps they are incapable of achieving with each other. Their marriage is an accident that became an inevitability, as two people who have little idea how compatible they are do what young people did before the sexual revolution that the novel anticipates: When they reached a certain age, they married whomever they were dating.
On Chesil Beach is a novel about many things: the British class system, changing morés, the slumber from which young people would awaken with the Beatles, the nature of love and the sexual expression of it. Yet it’s primarily a novel of masterful sentences that express (sometimes through spaces and silences) what the characters themselves are incapable of expressing.
There’s a virtuosic expanse just past the novel’s midpoint, when the newlyweds finally arise form their dinner to make their awkward way toward consummation. As McEwan details the emotional ebb and flow of desire, fear, mortification, and embarrassment of two people who barely know themselves, let alone each other, the reader realizes in retrospect that he has become spellbound by twelve pages that describe perhaps a minute and a half of foreplay. The prose slices and shimmers, though sex has rarely seemed less sexy.
There are long novels that could have been even longer, and short novels that should have been even shorter. This latest from England’s foremost contemporary novelist feels just right.