Covered in dog hair, Obsessed with books, Wondering what it's all about. I suspect the answer is ice cream and the ocean.
Format: Hard Copy
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2001
Genre(s): Literary Fiction
Awards: A few including the National Book Critics Circle and the L.A. Times Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Booker
I’ve wanted to read a book by Ian McEwen for many years because he seems to be a literary writer that is almost universally admired and enjoyed. But I approach literary fiction with some level of caution. Sometimes I feel like it is incredibly readable and it just blows me away but sometimes I feel a bit like Gavin of The Readers podcast that it's 300 odd pages spelling out a story about a guy walking to the shop. It’s just a sketchy label for a book - what does it even mean? So I wasn’t sure what I was going to get with Atonement but I was hopeful and my hope was fulfilled many times over. This was a spectacular read.
The book revolves around a crime committed on an English estate in 1934. The crime is compounded and made all the more tragic because of the faulty testimony of a 13 year old girl Briony Tallis. The repercussions of these events ripple out through the years and into World War II and beyond.
There is so much to talk about with this book. First, I have to say that while I never found myself yearning to get back to it, once I did pick it up I had a hard time stopping. I found it completely absorbing and mesmerizing and could have read it in one sitting if I’d had the time to devote. There is an almost constant sense of suspense and tension.
Second, there is both so much and so little going on in this book. The first third to half covers just about one day in the life of the Tallis family. The reader floats among the different characters; Cecilia, Briony, Robbie, Emily; getting different perspectives on the events and most interestingly on each of the characters. It is all building up to something, the foreboding clear in the writing, and when it crashes it is utterly devastating. Then we’re in World War II and Robbie is crossing France to get to Dunkirk. Briony has grown up and realizing the damage she has wrought, she is attempting to atone by not taking the privileges given to her and instead signing up as a nurse. The last half of the book is spent in Robbie and then Briony’s head and the grand events unfolding are seen through their eyes. In the end McEwen provides a wallop that will break your heart and leave you wondering.
Finally there are all the questions. I felt like McEwen captured perfectly the attitude and brain space of a 13 year old girl. Still a child with little experience and mostly a child’s perceptions but utterly convinced that she has an adult’s judgment. I wanted to throttle her as she completely misread almost every situation with an incredibly tragic result. But she is a child and what is the culpability of the adults surrounding her? Why are they so easily able to turn against a childhood friend, someone they know well and who is practically family? How can they believe such things of him? And for that matter why is life so very unfair? I found it impossible not to feel compassion for Briony and felt she was just as much a victim as the others. I think it is a book that would be very interesting to discuss with others.
It probably goes without saying, considering McEwen’s stature as a writer, but the writing at the sentence and word level is also breathtaking. The structure of the book is unique - it is not a straight through narrative and it's not even what the reader thinks it is. The book's full payoff and meaning comes in the last few pages.
Final Verdict: I believe I will likely be joining the ranks of readers who think Ian McEwen can do little wrong. Atonement was incredibly readable and while a lot of time is spent in people’s heads thinking their thoughts, it was never boring or too noodly. It provided hours of mesmerized reading and lots of thoughtful contemplation. 4.5 stars out of 5.
I also very much liked the movie of the book and enjoyed picturing James McAvoy as Robbie. Any other McEwen fans out there? What do you think is his best book?