Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”

With all the hype surrounding this novel, especially after Joe Wright’s stunning outing with its film adaptation, it could hardly go ignored for too long.  Like many hyped up events in whatever category of the entertainment media, either heightened disappointment follows upon finishing it, or you join the crowd of enthusiasts as you cut down any person that dares to suggest that it does not live up to its name.   In my case, I belong to both outcomes.  If you were to ask me of McEwan’s writing prowess, you’ll catch me dancing with the other sheeps, insisting that the novel is a work of a genius.  If you were to ask what I thought of the story, or of the characters, you’ll see me dancing around the book’s bonfire instead.

The story revolves around Briony; a clueless and sheltered child.  She is a character that mirrors that of Catherine Morland from Jane Austen’s Nothanger Abbey (indeed, McEwan includes Catherine’s character in the novel’s epigragh).  Briony is so inexperienced in the world, as she consistently shuts herself up in her own world, her own stories, and her own imagination.  When she sees an event that involves her sister, this inexperience disables her from truly understanding, so she creates her own versions of events.  Her edition of what happens goes on to ruin the lives of her sister, and her sister’s lover.  As then spends the rest of her life, trying to atone her mistake.

Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis in Joe Wright's 2007 film adaptationThere is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that this is probably the most beautifully written book I have had the fortune to read.  He plays with language; venturing into emotions, philosophies and imagination.  His descriptions are vivid because of his unique set of similes and metaphors, along with adjectives you would not expect to be conjunctioned with certain objects and landscapes.  His exploration into a thirteen year old child’s mind is extraordinary – he creates an atmospheric strangeness about her, contrasting her imaginary world and wild thoughts against the straightforward minds of the adults.

Equally, I never felt the hardship that soldiers went through in the wars until I read this book.  McEwan effortlessly depicted the pain and struggle that Robbie goes through in northern France in the most heartbreaking manner.  The true horrors of the period are brought to life by McEwan’s brilliantly crafted arrangement of vocabulary.

Despite the outstanding writing, this book is incredibly hard work to get through.  It had its moments of excitement and suspense, but all in all, I found it difficult to turn the pages.  Sometimes, I felt it was, perhaps, too arty as ninety per cent of a page could be a description or taking the reader into philosophy.  I appreciated it, but personally, I wanted a story, and if all of the diversions were taken out of this book I believe it could have been a sixty paged novella.  As it is, McEwan’s style is relied heavily upon to pull this story through.

I do see the fuss, but if you are after a plain good story, this is not the book to satisfy you.  Apart from the idea that a girl grows older and wiser, and tries consistently to atone for her sins, there is not much else, plot wise, going on here.  The theme is explored amicably; it’s a fine exploration of guilt and forgiveness, of making mistakes and learning from them.   It wholly depends on what the reader is looking for: good writing, or a good story.  Unfortunately, the brilliant novels achieve both, and this one falls short.



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