Saturday, October 11, 2008

Book Review: Atonement

Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Literary Fiction
Grade: A

Book Summary (from Back Cover): On a summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony's incomplete grasp of adult motives and her precocious imagination bring about a crime that will change all their lives, a crime whose repercussions Atonement follows through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.

Review: Allegedly this book is about love, war, childhood, class, guilt, and forgiveness (based on the back flap copy), which is was... to some degree. There is love, all kinds of love, there is war, and a little bit of classicism (very little) thrown in. The main focus of this book is on the transition from childhood to adulthood, and how our decisions affect others outcomes in life.

In my opinion, the book started off incredibly grand--Briony is writing a play as a gift for her brother's homecoming. The language McEwan uses to get inside of Briony and her attitudes about writing are so evocative (and a little self-effacing as writers must be when writing about the process of writing). As it turns out, her cousins thwart the play because, in Briony's opinion, they don't want to be in the play, and she finds that she's a novelist at heart:

"The simplest way to have impressed Leon would have been to write him a story and put it in his hands herself, and watch as he read it. The title lettering, the illustrated cover, the pages bound--in that word alone she felt the attraction of the neat, limited and controllable form she had left behind when she decided to write a play. A story was direct and simple, allowing nothing to come between herself and her reader--no intermediaries with their private ambitions or incompetence, no pressures of time, no limits on resources," (p. 35).
Briony reflects the true essence of every writer--seeing the world through their perspective and interpreting it to fit their ends. Unfortunately, Briony takes this too far when she accuses Robbie of a dastardly crime.

There are other themes in this complex and riveting book (I can say with confidence that it's riveting because I already knew the criminal was in fact innocent and knew with some degree of certainty who had perpetrated the crime, the crime was a plot device, the story being told was more rich than a simple who-done-it). For example, the war is raging and Robbie's fighting, only communicating with his true love via letters and you know in your heart that he'll come back to her, that's barely even an issue (a non-realized threat), your biggest threat is how their relationship will be when he returns. What are the underlying elements of their motivations and driving forces behind their actions?

The internal motivations of the characters are an interesting element of McEwan's theme. For example, the mother of Briony and Cecelia has a reflective moment about her wayward sister, Hermione, thinking about her sister always tried to steal the limelight and Lola (Hermione's daughter) was just the same. Unfortunately, what the mother fails to realize is that all of the children in the book, Lola's twin brothers and Briony included, try to have the attention on themselves--it's a natural part of being a child. I could go on and on about how the characters in this book rarely succeed in understanding the motivations of others (which is McEwan's non-polemic way of telling us that all of us are rarely correct in our assumptions and judgements of others).

To get beyond the theme of the book, which could conceivably become a doctoral dissertation, let's review the language and writing style of McEwan. At the beginning he is completely captivating, describing temperature, smells, sounds, and tactile feelings with deftness, and little attention is paid to actual activities. The essence of activity in the first hundred or so pages of the book is writing, talking, laying down, and walking. However, you feel as if you're stuck in the stifling heat of the day, feeling the anticipation of Leon's arrival home. It seems as if he's doing this somewhat tongue-in-cheek because later Briony gets feedback from a publisher stating that she focuses too much on description and not enough on plot. Again, I'm sensing irony here because too often in life we focus on plot (the activities of our daily lives) without assessing and thinking about why we're doing what we're doing.

Not to be deterred, if you're someone who doesn't love flowery language (or you only like it up to a point), McEwan's writing style allows for this. He uses something akin to catch phrases (Cecelia uses the phrase "Come back to me," throughout the book to both children and adults and shows the reader that both everyone has fears and issues, and the transition between immaturity and maturity is not necessarily a static change, it is fluid and undulating throughout one's life). As a reader you can move between drinking in every word and skimming his prose, as your cloying factor allows you, and you'll still have a delightful reading experience. McEwan has chosen to write this book for every type of reader.

This book has earned an A (rather than A+) only because Lola and Paul Marshall were unnecessarily vilified. They are not portrayed in any way as redeeming characters; however, years of felicity and dogged protection of one another is in some way redeeming. The story would have been a bit more powerful (although likely lost some of its final realism) if Briony, aged 78 or so, would have realized that she needed to stop judging them... but this lesson was never fully actualized.

1 comment:

mari said...

I loved this book. :)