Sunday, March 31, 2013

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Anchor (2003)

Due to the beginning of this year being quite filled with the excitement of emigration, Michael was kind enough to take lead on choosing the first few book/movie pairs for the year. I was pretty excited to see Atonement on that list because I'd been wanting to read it again. It's a book that I responded to in a completely emotional way when I first read it. I've been looking for an excuse to pick it up and try for a more rational response. For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Atonement

From the publisher: "On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives–together with her precocious literary gifts–brings about a crime that will change all their lives. As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece."

In a nod to efficiency I often like to pull the publisher's synopses rather than try to do my own but in this case it was probably a necessity. Even with my second, hopefully more rational, reading of the book I doubt I could say what it was about in only a few sentences. But what the above synopsis doesn't impart is anything about the structure of the novel and that might be my favorite thing about it. Yeah, I should admit right out that what I love most in this novel is McEwan's craft. The story literally makes my blood boil but its structure and exquisite craft give me little thrills because good writing is such a pleasure.

The book is separated into three parts, the first of which comprises that "hot summer day."  That day ends with a crime that defines the rest of the protagonists' lives. The second part is several years later and occurs during WWII. The final part is essentially Briony putting the bow on the story. Except the bow is not a cheery thing but a thing that might make a reader want to grab its mangled fucking ends and rip everything to shreds... that's purely a supposition you understand. I bring up the structure because it's part of the story, too. Briony wants to be a writer and discovers the novel in 1935. She grows up to write novels and Atonement so wonderfully embraces a novelist's mind and methods that you feel Briony the Novelist's touch in every part. It's easy to read the story and not notice this but I find it just delicious and can't imagine this story without this telling.

So about this story... it's a heartbreaker. It's not just that uncheery bow at the end either. It's all of it. Briony's mistake, Lola's victimization, Robbie's lost chance at a normal life, Cecilia's break from her family. And, my gosh, it's so hard to not be angry the whole time you're reading it. The little moments of nothings that lead to such a disastrous outcome break your heart and make you so mad. And that has to be another testament to McEwan's craft here. A book you wish you could throw at the wall but you can't because you don't want to put it down. A book with a protagonist whose neck you want to ring but you can't because without her there is no story. It's an absolutely fascinating experience.

So about this telling... it can be a slog. That may come as a surprise since I spent a whole paragraph gushing about exquisite craft but it's true. Admittedly, I am a reader who regularly skims but if I'm reading a book I really like or am really impressed with then I usually attend to every word. I just couldn't do it here. No matter how impressed I was, or how interested, I simply could not manage to stay in a character's head as long as McEwan wanted me to. (This is probably the reason I avoid memoirs.) There are endless chances to spend time on tangential trains of thought and those are trains in which I have no interest. If I get lucky, one day I will find someone who likes them and is willing to share with me what s/he likes about them. I need some educatin'.

But back to this experience... it really is an experience. Even though the story gets me so emotional I can't say I'm ever lost in it. I can't ever stop seeing the Novelist's touch, I can't ever stop analyzing all the decisions that lead to the story's end, I can't ever stop wondering what I would have said, had I been Robbie or Cecilia, when Briony came to me with the truth. It's the kind of book I wish I had read with a book club because it's hard to not want to discuss it. And, unfortunately, the pieces of the story I want to discuss most are huge spoilers so I am going to avoid them here. In case any visitor's have read the book and want to discuss I am going to list two questions:

Did Briony actually give anything back to Cecilia and Robbie with this story?
Was this a successful atonement?

My answers are no and no which is why I think Part III of the book infuriates me.

What I've written here seems to me a rather unconventional review and lacking in what I think is most essential in a review: can you tell if this is the kind of book you'd be interested in? I'm pretty sure I can't pull it together because I still struggle with what I think about the book. And that, I must say, means it's something extraordinary. Whether or not I like it, I can't stop thinking about it. In a world with endless options for entertainment, a story that a reader can't get out of her mind is certainly an accomplishment.

I can't say I recommend it without reservations but I can definitely say that I want to discuss it with anyone who has read it.

So about the movie... well, let's leave that for Michael's post.

rating: 3 or 4 of 5 stars *

*depends on the day :-)

Coming up next:

Hostage by Robert Crais

Links to previous joint posts: 
The Hot Rock


  1. This a fantastic look at this novel from a personal perspective. And I think that's great. You brought up a number of things that did get to me while I attempted to get through it... Yeah, I was only partially successful -- notice I painted it positively, my failure to finish the work. I'm sorry, I just couldn't. The wonderful writing, so flowery at times and rich in others, did wear me down. It's me... not the author. I can only take so much English prose without some colorful language and an act of crime and violence to loosen things up ;-).

    That said, if the film adaptation jettisons some but stays true to what's in the novel, then I would have heaved book, audiobook & player at the wall. Again, that's just me. I read enough reviews of the work that mirrors much of what you enjoyed in the story. Perhaps, I'm one who hates the rug pulled out from under me, or just wants a little justice in the world (or comeuppance), and this didn't quite satisfy that. I know. I went and suggested it.

    But, I can't say I hated the story, either. Just that blessed ending. Loved reading your thoughts about it, too. Thanks so much for this, Rachel.

  2. No apologies needed on not finishing the book; it's hard to finish. Not my style at all... there is so much blah blah blah... The first part is the hardest to get through. Parts II and III read much faster (relatively anyway:).

    I'm actually a big fan of the unreliable narrator so I don't at all mind having a rug ripped (though it must be done well) but I do so very much mind it being ripped by a delusional criminal who doesn't seem to understand that she has done nothing NOTHING to atone for her crime. If the movie ending drove you nuts just imagine that same ending except she's not being interviewed for her book but having a huge family celebration back at the manor. She is surrounded by a huge attentive family while the reader is getting clobbered with her phony atonement. Book meet wall. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) is there except Robbie and Cecilia. Grrr!!! Grrr!!! Also, her book won't be published before she dies because Lola and Asshat sue for libel as a hobby so her publisher won't publish. Seriously, that is what you're dealing with after learning that the entire "ending" is bullshit.

    One really cool aspect of the novel that wasn't in the movie (and probably can't be translated to film) was Briony "learning" at 13yo that bad people look just like everyone else. Of course, she misapplied this to Robbie but I thought it made it all that much more interesting because she has this huge epiphany and it turns out she does something bad and throughout her entire life is complicit and yet never seems to apply her epiphany to herself. There are a lot of these layers to the story that make the reading enjoyable on an analytical level but that's not going to do it for every reader (hell, it barely does it for me - I'm getting all pissed off again just thinking about this book).

    Glad we did this even though it looks like we both wanted to burn the book sometimes. ;-)