Sunday, August 22, 2010

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement by Ian McEwan, 2001

Some books break your heart. Some books are so beautiful and so perfectly crafted that you find yourself getting truly involved in their stories-- even though you know it will only end in tragedy.

Atonement is gorgeous and brilliant and savagely cruel to readers' emotions. It's one of the finest novels I've ever read. The prose is simply superior, but (more importantly, in my opinion), so is the story.

The novel opens a few years before World War II. Briony Tallis is a young girl in an idyllic, innocent England. A precocious budding author, Briony looks for the story in everything. This tendency leads to disaster when she observes an encounter between her older sister Cecilia and the housekeeper's son and gravely misreads the participant's motives, setting the stage for a catastrophic lie that will destroy the lives of three people.

McEwan is a revelation. One moment, he is poetically exploring the recesses of a character's mind, the next he is relating a pulse-pounding scene of wartime destruction. He can do dialogue, description, even action scenes like a grand master.

Take this excerpt:

A second thought always followed the first, one mystery bred another: Was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had. This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely. For though it offended her sense of order, she knew it was overwhelmingly probable that everyone else had thoughts like hers. She knew this, but only in a rather arid way; she didn't really feel it. (pages 45-46)

I mean, wow. How the hell did Ian McEwan get inside my head?

The novel starts with a lengthy segment exploring the situation at the Tallis's house in 1935, through several viewpoints, all impeccably, believably written. After Robbie is arrested for rape, the novel leaps to his experiences in France during World War II.

The section following Robbie as he tries to join the evacuation at Dunkirk is the best piece of war narrative I've read since Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels(1974). It's a pitch-perfect combination of tragic and thrilling.

Atonement's other big section is the relation of Briony's experiences as a nurse in pre-Blitz London. Again, McEwan shines. The episode is horrific and sickening, and startlingly beautiful.

If I have a criticism for the first four-fifths of the novel, it's that the three parts feel a tad disjointed, almost as though they're not quite part of the same narrative. This is no mistake, however.

In the closing pages (which take place in London, 1999), we find out that the previous 440 pages were all written by Briony, seeking atonement for her crime through the godlike power of writing.

By this point, I was caught in the novel's web, involved with the characters, and truly hoping for a happy ending.

Naturally, there really isn't one. Star-crossed lovers Robbie and Cecilia were both killed in the war and never reunited. Briony lived out her life in misery, never finding redemption for her one, devastating lie.

There could be no other ending. It would not be consistent for there to be an uplifting ending. The novel is dark, and though there is still hope at the end, it is basically about the inability to change the past and the fact that every single action has a consequence.

But what I really respect McEwan for is his marriage of technical brilliance and fabulous storytelling. Many "literary" authors are so busy reveling in their cutting-edge prose that they forget that they need a gripping story. McEwan has the best of both worlds and the result is a truly spectacular piece of fiction.

NEXT UP: A classic Agatha Christie Poirot mystery, The Hollow.

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