Passages of writing: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Book: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, p86 of 2008 Reclam edition. First published 2007.

Why: What I love specifically about this passage is the discussion on the power of words – the naming of the illness the mother has makes everything clear for the child (Edward) and how that changes everything for him.

Maybe this is more meaningful for any reader who grew up with a parent suffering a mental illness, suddenly becoming aware by being told the name of it, but it’s such a sad piece, (and so well written to evoke the sadness)  the way the child distances himself emotionally from the mother once he realises she has an illness:

‘The term dissolved intimacy, it coolly measured his mother by a public standard that everyone could understand.

But in a more general way it captures the moment when a child realises he’s not locked in to following in his family’s ways and will go on to be whoever he wants to be.

They stood side by side while Lionel lit his pipe at last, and Edward, with the adaptability of his years, continued to make the quiet transition from shock to recognition. Of course, he had always known. He had been maintained in a state of innocence by the absence of a term for her condition. He had never even thought of her as having a condition, and at the same time had always accepted that she was different. The contradiction was now resolved by this simple naming, by the power of words to make the unseen visible. Brain-damaged. The term dissolved intimacy, it coolly measured his mother by a public standard that everyone could understand. A sudden space began to open out, not only between Edward and his mother, but also between himself and his circumstances, and he felt his own being, the buried core of it he had never attended to before, come to a sudden, hard-edged existence, a glowing pinpoint that he wanted no one else to know about. She was brain-damaged, and he was not. He was not his mother, nor was he his family, and one day he would leave, and would return only as a visitor.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: