On Chesil Beach segues into The Great Gatsby to shake up the chaste lives of 1950s newly-weds.
Henry and Effie are innocents and innocence abroad. To these two 1950s newly-weds from deepest, deeply evangelical Georgia, New Jersey is a foreign country, and, my word, they do things differently there.
Our protagonists are just 20 and 18, come to honeymoon in late Aunt Lizzie’s seaside house. They’re high-school sweethearts, “near-enough” virgins ready and willing to enjoy decent persons’ sex. They kneel to pray each night; Henry reads The Life of Samuel Johnson to better himself. It’s charming, slightly cloying, has some promising character textures.
Then, one day, a house on the corner has Buicks, Cadillacs, a Rolls-Royce (really?) parked outside. Our two decide to gatecrash (really? No 2) and explore. And, of course, the seductive sophisticate who opens the door is Effie’s school chum (No 3).
Clara, Alma, Max, Scott et al: their gaudy glamour and reptilian hedonism enthrall H and E instantly. Parties! Sailboat rides! Swimming where pre-Lycra costumes threaten decorum! Dressing up and dancing and charade evenings (sic), all helped along by vats of gin and champagne.
It all leads to a fall, of course. Multiple falls, mostly into beds or onto rugs. Henry starts an affair with Alma. Effie succumbs to chunky-organed Max. There are sex scenes that read increasingly like car maintenance manuals, climaxing – yeah, yeah – in a foursome that’s both raunchy and risible. Amidst it all, H and E keep going to church.
Credit to Cheek. He works hard to suggest the complexities of corruption; avoids trite oppositions of worldliness versus simplicity; makes it clear that this is not just innocence perverted, but a slow excavation of darknesses within. His problem is that much of the narrative is a prolonged, sometimes prolix plunge into debauch. The increasingly besmirched protagonists are confused, hectic, directionless; the plot often follows suit. Cape May’s best bit is probably the melancholy final chapter, with its flit across decades of dwindling and compromise, acceptance and an enduring thread of love.
On Chesil Beach segueing into The Great Gatsby? The comparisons are inevitable, though you never doubt the integrity and originality of this novel. Cheek chews away (sorry) at his material respectfully and industriously. It’s flawed. It’s florid. It’s unexpectedly affecting.
CAPE MAY, by Chip Cheek (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $34.99)
This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.