Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book…

…it’s not often that a book moves me to such personal, vicious anger that I start to cry. That I rage, rage against something that offends and wounds me to my very core. That makes me want to scream at its pages, gnash my teeth and pull my hair like some kind of deranged madman.

While I have liked previous novels by McEwan — specifically Atonement — I don’t actively seek out his books. I had never heard of this one until it was softly recommended to me by someone close; I say it was a “soft recommendation” because it was more like this person really wanted my take on it.

You see, I am demisexual — I identify on the asexual (or, ace) spectrum, and the female character of this novel, Florence, is said to be asexual. Representation of asexuals is rare — hell, even getting recognized as part of the LGBTQIA spectrum (we’re the “A”, if you haven’t guessed) can be a struggle, as the “A” is frequently mistaken for “Ally” (it’s not). I have been called “too queer to be straight” and, by others, “not gay enough to be queer.” Now, look, I’m not going to sit and bemoan everyone with a “woe is me” story because I don’t have any angst over my own sexuality. I am demisexual and that’s that. I shrug and move on and don’t expect it to change people’s opinion of me because my sexual preference doesn’t define me as a human being.

With that in mind, I went into this novel with an element of trepidation. About 1% of the world population identifies on the ace spectrum, and if any of them have had my experience in trying to talk to people about it…there’s a lot of either misunderstanding of just full on lack of knowledge as it pertains to the topic. I, for example, have been explicitly asked, “How do you know if you’ve never had sex?” How do I know? Because I have no interest in sex; my body does not respond to the idea of sex and it never has — well, okay, it has once, and it was with a person for whom I had a long-standing, emotionally intimate relationship. Hence, the demisexual self-identification. But asking someone that question is like asking someone who is heterosexual, “How do you know if you’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend?” You know. It is not a choice, it just is.

Florence in this novel may be asexual…but McEwan has also made her a victim of previous sexual abuse. This in and of its self wouldn’t necessarily be a “problem” if it weren’t for the way in which McEwan so completely intertwines these two things. Florence isn’t just asexual — uninterested in sex — she has physical reactions to the very thought of it. She is very literally repulsed by the idea, which McEwan frequently describing her lips curling in disgust, her having feelings of nausea, squeamishness, and pure dread. And this is just at the thought of sex.

“…her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.”

That is not asexuality. That is a trauma response. There is a very clear, very distinct difference between not feeling sexual attraction (or, as in the case of the gray-A/demisexual community, maybe feeling it only after a long period of deep emotional intimacy), and being actively repulsed by or downright afraid of the idea of sex to the point that you feel sick.

One of these things is a sexual identity…the other is a trauma response. They are not the same thing, nor will they ever be the same thing.

Again, it is possible to have both. I’m not saying that asexuals cannot experience sexual trauma and, therefore, experience completely valid PTSD as a result. Sexual assault, sexual trauma are valid reasons to have negative reactions to sex.

But in the execution of this story, McEwan’s interweaving of what should be two wholly unrelated things creates a sinister case of implied causation that made me uncomfortable and so blisteringly angry that I completely lost my composure. Because it implies that Florence is, in some way, “broken” — she certainly believes that about herself, and while I’m willing to go, “Okay. It’s a period piece, so there was a different mentality” and not be up in arms over that, I will be frustrated that this is the kind of representation my spectrum has.

For a group that is so wholly underrepresented, this is not the representation I want or need. We don’t need something that implies that, because I uninterested in sex, it is because of some kind of trauma and that, in not desiring sex, I am somehow defective.

Because I am not broken. I am not defective. My lack of interest in sex is not due to some kind of horrific past trauma, and to imply such is downright insulting.

Had McEwan completely abandoned the trauma/PTSD angle and every response related to that, perhaps this could have been an interesting story of a couple that falls apart because the guy can’t understand the girl’s asexuality. After all, at the end of it, Florence (apparently) goes off to live a very full and rich life; it’s all telegraphed to us through her now-ex-husband’s perspective, so we see, too, that he is left with nothing.

If nothing else, the prose is evocative. But then again, pretty prose does not necessarily speak to the content. And while I don’t think everything I’ve critiqued was necessarily McEwan’s intent, it is unfortunate that the ending — which should have been this great moment of empowerment — is undercut by everything that precedes it. The empowerment of the final pages is far too tinged in my own bitterness and bile at everything that led to it.

It was a valiant effort, and there are time when McEwan seems to “get it,” as it were…but they are few and they are far between, inextricably linked with something darker to the point it’s oftentimes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins…and I am ace.

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