Book Review: On Chesil Beach


The first Ian McEwan novel I read, Atonement, is one of my favorite books.   I picked up several more of McEwan’s novels the last time I was in the bookstore. 

I just finished the first of the books I chose, On Chesil Beach.  It was published in 2007, and is just 203 pages.  Its length actually surprised me because it read very much like a short story–its primary events concerned only one night.  There are flashbacks throughout the story, and the end moves us quickly to the rest of the characters’ lives, but it is primarily about the events–or non-events–of the wedding night of two virgins, Edward and Florence, and a miscommunication that effects the rest of their lives.

This novel is literary fiction defined–very little plot movement, extreme character development.  McEwan is a master.  He brilliantly depicts the psyche of two emotionally underdeveloped people, and sublty weaves conflict around what is not said, what is not done, and what is misunderstood. 

Because very few physical events transpire, I can’t summarize the plot any more than I have.  I will say that McEwan’s understanding and craft are not to be matched.  His characters are fully realized and he is in full control of them.  Every word, thought, and action is deliberate and well placed.


McEwan holds nothing back. This is 90% good, and 10% “he did not just write that.”  I am not squeamish, prudish, or easily shocked, but I still wanted to turn away from certain scenes in the novel.  It was too intimate.  There was too much detail.  As a writer, I trust my reader to read between the lines and make inferences.  If I write that a character is shot,  I don’t describe the point of bodily entry down to the smell.   

I realize that this is my problem.  McEwan wanted the reader to be as uncomfortable as the characters in the story. 

Mission accomplished.

Though I can’t recommend this book far and wide–I do recommend it to writers.  It is perfectly drawn and executed, unfolds at the perfect pace, and represents characterization at its best.





2 thoughts on “Book Review: On Chesil Beach

  1. Eileen says:

    I think your review is spot on. I read this book about a year ago and found myself cringing while reading it but could not put it down either. It is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, just as the characters do, and it does so brilliantly. I was so frustrated though, that these two people who obviously loved each other, could not get past the situation at hand. I actually loved this book and Atonement is one of my favorites. Thanks for the review!

  2. Erika Robuck says:

    I’m so glad to hear of someone else who read this. He’s a very gifted writer. Truly, I’m jealous that I can’t remove the filters and just write. McEwan has no filters.

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