On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Woman in a library art nouveau for On Confronting Literature by Malin James

Dig by Sadie Wendall (1909)

On Books that Quietly Confront

I’ve had On Chesil Beach since it released in 2007. It’s a lovely little hardback and I picked it up without even looking at what it’s about because I love Ian McEwan. I remember taking it home and doing the rare thing of sitting down to start it right away (I usually buy books and put them in the long, long, long line of my TBR). But I got two pages in and stopped. I felt vaguely ill and I stopped. I slowly closed the book, set it on the shelf with my other McEwans and moved on without trying to think too much.

In the years since then, On Chesil Beach has sat on my shelf, biding its time. I say “biding its time” because it felt like an active presence in its own quiet way. I’d pull other books off the shelf to read, or to cull or consider, and think – I know you’re there. I’m going to read you, but I’m not ready yet. 

I couldn’t pick the book up, but I still mentally addressed because, in an odd way, it didn’t feel like an object. It felt like an experience I was going to have to have, one that was waiting patiently for me. It’s the most gently confrontational book I’ve ever read because the confrontation was very specific. Two pages in, it was clear that the experience of reading On Chesil Beach was going to be deeply personal. So I set it aside until I could process why. Here’s why:

I recognized too much of myself in those first pages. The situation in that narrow book resonated in a way that drew a personal line for me between literature that confronts by design (think Tampa or American Psycho) and literature that resonates to the point of confrontation. For me, On Chesil Beach is the latter, and it’s a very different thing than the former.

Literature that confronts by design is meant to challenge – you know what you’re getting into before you even start. Whether the challenge is emotional, psychological, moral or social depends on the book, but regardless of how it challenges, its intention (at least in part) is to challenge. I love a great many books that do this – The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; Tampa by Alyssa Nutting and loads of others – some that I’ve actively enjoyed and others that were difficult but which I appreciate nonetheless.

That appreciation comes from the distance the intended effect allows me to have. If I pick up A Little LifeI’m going to brace myself for the experience of reading it. Same with An Untamed State. That doesn’t mean I won’t be emotionally affected – far from it. What it does mean is that the effect will very likely be tempered, somewhat, by two things – the fact that I was expecting it and the fact that others have been similarly affected by the book.

Cover of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan for On Confronting Literature by Malin JamesLiterature that resonates to the point of confrontation is different. For books like this, the confronting element is purely accidental and often deeply personal. On Chesil Beach is a perfect example. Nothing about it is directly confrontational – it’s about a young couple and their disastrous wedding night. No one gets killed, maimed, or traumatized. However, when you scratch the surface, it’s about a young woman’s complicated relationship with sex in the wake of sexual abuse, and the damage it does to her relationship. While it isn’t about trauma, it’s about the effect of trauma and that resonated with me in a deeply personal and challenging way.

Though the situation in the book is very different (and quite a lot simpler) than mine, it reverberated enough to feel dangerous when I first bought it. I’d suppressed a great deal and was, at the time, unprepared to examine large chunks of my childhood, my sexuality, my personality and my sexual / romantic relationships. This subtle, gentle book hit close enough to home that I knew within two pages that it was going to make me confront things I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, so I set it aside and let it wait for me.

The fact that I was drawn to reading it now signals an important shift. I avoided it for years with the conscious understanding that I would “read it when I’m ready”. That I pulled it down from the shelf last week and read it in two days means that my relationship to those things I was trying to protect – memories of my childhood, my sexuality and my perceptions (of both myself and my relationships) – are strong enough now to bear the acknowledgement reading the book would mean.

Literature intended to confront is an important part of how you might understand experiences beyond your own. It’s a way to engage empathy and understanding and broaden your mind. Literature that resonates to the point of confrontation has the opposite effect. Rather than looking outward, it’s a passage inward to your personal experiences, one that can deepen your understanding of how you move through life.

Sometimes that’s a joyful thing. Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult. Either way, there’s great value in the challenge – so much so, in fact, that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re able to process that value in a healthy productive way. It’s the difference between engaging your history and triggering yourself. When in doubt, opt for the approach that allows you to engage without hurting yourself.

8 thoughts on “On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

  1. If you’ll excuse another personal response to the topic –

    I’m really admiring of your attitude and tactic, here. I don’t have the trauma experience that you have to contend with, or at least I didn’t – though I have to confess my mother’s death in my twenties dug a huge dent into my emotional resilience, as has having children (and other major life events like separation and special needs).

    I would consider myself to have a hyper sensitive sort of empathy that often feels like a disorder – especially when things resonate emotionally – the end of the Time Traveller’s Wife, for example – I stayed up til about 4 am just to get through it, because I knew it was coming and couldn’t sleep on that anticipation – and wept my guts up for about two hours, alone in the dark in the middle of the night. It’s an amazing book – so well plotted, written… but I kind of wish I hadn’t read it, so painful is that image of the woman waiting, waiting into old age for that one more glimpse of her loved one she can’t have. It makes me cry now just to think about it, and knowing why it makes me feel that way makes it worse.

    It’s hard with empathy – today on the news there’s a horrific tragedy that is really too hard to hear – and I know when I cry for the person suffering it, it’s for her, not a ‘what if it happened to me’ feeling. But with fiction … am I crying for a fictional character or some part of myself? I’m not sure, but I experience upsetting books that are hard to read in a damaging way. I feel undone by them, never able to shrug the feelings that they occasion. I’m not brave, and I think a lot of my character is indeed built around avoidance of pain – but the visceral battering of books like the one you describe, and the inability to recover from them after… the memories of those moments stay with me like they’re mine… I don’t really know how to cope. I have no distancing ability. I’m horrified to find that I’ve really stopped being a reader – despite the fact that my identity was bound up with being exactly that – but I don’t seem to have the strength for much more than fantasy or romance any more.

    I feel terrible about this, but, as I said, I often regret the serious books I’ve read – I feel so torn up by them. I’m not sure I grow as a result. I’m really fascinated by this topic, and it’s one that’s on my mind. How does one learn this distancing? All I feel is raw. I’m sure this is what stops me writing as well, this self protective motivation, and the opposite bravery is what makes you write so well, too.

    • I’m really happy you made this comment, Vida – you brought up an important issue. There are points at which the empathy one feels can be damaging in and of itself. I spent a lot of my younger years shying away from disturbing movies and books because they *hurt*. I was physically ill after watching Seven. I didn’t sleep for a week after watching Kenneth Branaugh’s (kind of terrible) adaptation of Frankenstein. There was so much despair I couldn’t process it. Even now, there are books that I know I will never read because some limits are worth challenging and others aren’t. Challenging books are only good if that challenge is productive / healthy. The Road, Sophie’s Choice…these are books that would hit me in all the wrong places, so the confrontation, which might be useful or interesting for some people, would be harmful to me.

      I think the real thing is to know your limits (and how soft or hard they are), and honor them. Your avoidance of pain isn’t a lack of bravery – it’s an acceptance of your emotional landscape and needs. There is absolutely no reason for a person to put themselves through fictional hell for the sake of it and there is nothing wrong with protecting yourself from pain. The world can be a very difficult, hard place and there is a great deal of pain (as well as joy) in it. Reading should be one of those things that serves you – not the other way around. Read whatever pleases you as it pleases you for any reason at all. That’s a personal choice informed by a world of experiences that are personal and specific to you and anyone who judges you for it is a jerk (so there.)

      As for bravery in writing…I don’t know. I’ve always had an impulse to poke my bruises and prod my insides. If it hurt, it fascinated me. This made me a really morbid, often unhappy kid, but it’s that, more than bravery, that informs how I write. I just can’t help but pull the stitches out…and I suppose that’s what attracts me to certain books as a reader too. It may not have been the healthiest emotional landscape to grow up with, but for better or worst, that seemed to be my natural state.

      • Oh, right, those books you mentioned are definitely ones I know I just won’t do. Funny, I know two men who *adored* The Road… but protecting a child through a time of hopeless apocalypse is up thre on my worst fears list. And I did read Sophie’s Choice, for some reason – I still have to go ‘lalalalala’ mentally, when I even hear the title.

        Thanks for your sweet r esponse!

      • Thank *you* for the comment! For what it’s worth, I have to “lalalala” mentally for a couple of books too, though I’d never thought of it like that before. I’m probably going to steal that from you!

  2. I absolutely love.this post. I have read it fast first and then slow. I had to gallop through it first to check that you had been ok. Books that gently confront are a very.special gift when they come at the right time. I utterly.applaud your awareness and your instinct that recognised it and put it to the side – you literally shelved it until you were ready. I think it is a huge indicator of your changes and the way you have explored and taken ownership of more of you, that the time was now right for you to read it. This is more evidence of your beautiful self awareness and ownership of you and your experiences. Xxxx

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