Ian McEwan is a dedicated student of cataclysm, delving into psychological temblors large and small. He has explored the after-effects of 9/11 and the looming crisis of the Iraq invasion, the chaotic retreat at Dunkirk during World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has also sifted through more personal, but no less harrowing, horrors, such as the relentless advance of a psychopath or the agony of losing a child. He has turned evil into menacing black dogs and has walked away with fewer Man Booker Prizes than he deserves (he won for the morality tale "Amsterdam" in 1998).
The upheaval in his new, irresistibly economical novel is of the personal sort. Propped against the backdrop of England in the early 1960s, before the Beatles explosion and Carnaby Street and LSD and free love, "On Chesil Beach" feels momentous despite its tiny, absurd domestic dilemma. World War II is long over; the new world hasn't yet begun. A man and woman - "young, educated and both virgins" - negotiate the weathered conventions of their wedding night, murmuring "I love yous," attempting to eat overcooked beef, rejoicing that the grueling public day is over. He is inwardly swooning with excitement over the evening to come. She is sick with repulsion. "They lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible," intones McEwan's wise narrator. "But it is never easy."
With that swiftly and acutely drawn setup, McEwan lays out the bones of this novel in one or two neat sentences, a marvelous accomplishment. His compelling, five-act drama then jumps back and forth in time, from the meeting of Edward (born the week the Battle of the Bulge began; history student from a shabby country home; mentally disabled mother) and Florence (accomplished musician from a pleasantly middle-class Victorian villa; bluestocking mother; boat-mad father) to their present, uncomfortable situation.
Their problem is deceptively difficult and might seem silly to modern sensibilities. But like most minor emotional earthquakes it carries the potential for destruction, looming, as it does, on the cusp of a cultural movement that will wipe away much of the fear and embarrassment over sex. "The language and practice of therapy, the currency of feelings diligently shared, mutually analyzed, were not yet in general circulation," McEwan writes. "While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not yet customary to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved."
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Five years on, Edward and Florence would not be afraid to speak. Five years on, they'd be honest and would probably laugh (or at least get high, then laugh). But here in the summer of 1963 they're almost paralyzed.
McEwan employs his omniscient narrator with dexterity. The voice, clearly ironically inclined, juxtaposes efficiently with the seriousness of Edward and Florence, whose futures will be determined by what happens this night. The narrator stands at a safe distance but possesses the presence of mind to be witty: "This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many of them did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry."
Is this Florence or Edward, viewing herself or himself with detached venom from afar? Hard to say. The voice stays unobtrusive for the most part, but it knows what's ahead for the couple as well as for Britain. It does not waste time waxing nostalgic for the past or the future. We don't need a mention of the self-indulgence and rabid self-awareness that will explode in the decade to come. They lie hidden in plain sight on almost every page, and we can recognize and enjoy the irony even if Edward and Florence can't.
"On Chesil Beach," which first appeared as a short story in The New Yorker, builds a potent suspense swiftly, and McEwan details the couple's sexual encounter with unnerving precision. Such meticulousness underscores how a few moments can define a future, how difficult it is to lay ourselves bare, how human to flee from better destinies. Fortunately, though life is never easy, as the narrator reminds us, gorging ourselves on McEwan's inpeccable prose is.
"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan is published by Nan A. Talese. $22.
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald's book editor.