Atonement

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Ian McEwan

This is the first McEwan I’ve read (although I have owned Amsterdam for a long time without reading it. I enjoyed Atonement enough to root through my home library and find Amsterdam, but not so much that I’ll do it any time soon.

According to the reading guide, Atonement is the story of Briony Tallis, who “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. [The story] follows that crime's repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.”

Well, yes, but…

The novel is divided into three main parts, followed by an unconvincing epilogue. Part I – the crime scene – is set in the toney English countryside in 1935; Part II focuses on Turner’s turn as a soldier; and Part III is told from the perspective of Briony, working as a trainee nurse in war-torn London, five years after her “crime.” The epilogue, told in the 1st person, is 55 years later, and is meant to inspire “oohs” of discovery – it’s been Briony writing all along, this is a true story, oh, but it’s not true, blah blah blah. A narrative twist at the very end – what a novel concept.

The middle of the book is awesome – Parts II and III made me laugh and cry and think. McEwan’s descriptions of wartime, whether on the front on in the hospitals, are humbling and powerful. Part I and the epilogue were less inspired or inspiring.

While reading Part I, I found myself counting adjectives. For example:

“murmuring into the tight whorl of the girl’s ear”

“her wish for a harmonious, organised world”

“he had a neutral, vaguely inquisitive air”

“His footsteps quickened in the still summer evening to the rhythm of his exultant thoughts”

and so on…

Granted, the epilogue, and bits of the finale of Part III, explain all of this by making it clear that the narrator is the adult Briony, whose writing style is heavily influenced by Woolf (and it is reminiscent of To the Lighthouse, certainly) but, at least in Part I, is still that of a 13-year old girl. Thus Part I is told with sweeping, adjective-laden majesty, more concerned with atmosphere than plot. Part I leaps from Briony’s point of view to her sister’s to Turner’s and back again. This leaping around would have been more convincing if the writing style had switched perceptibly to accommodate the new perspective – I find it hard to believe that Robbie Turner’s writing style would have produced just as many florid passages as Briony’s.

The narrative settles down considerably in the middle, and it is immediately evident – and the only reason I continued reading past Part I.

Recommendation: Definitely, but be prepared to wade through some torrid prose to get to the good stuff. Also, be prepared for a mental groan of predictability and “been there, done that” at the end.

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3 Comments

I recently read "Captain Underpants and the Case of the Missing Gonchies."

Here's some more great reading - a must for those who possess a sense of humour. http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~thoureau/japanese.html

Just had to let you know that, in my humble opinion, Atonement is the poorest of all McEwan's novels - almost all the others are quite remarkable. Look out for Enduring Love - I absolutely loved this one.

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This page contains a single entry by Maggie published on July 12, 2004 7:52 AM.

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