Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2001

It's about: "An upper-middle-class girl in interwar England who aspires to be a writer makes a serious mistake that has life-changing effects for many. Consequently, through the remaining years of the century, she seeks atonement for her transgression, which leads to an exploration on the nature of writing itself." -Atonement's wikipedia article
Yeah, I know, it's lazy to copy somebody else's summary, but I couldn't figure out how to write an "It's about" without spoiling. I did adjust the horrendous punctuation from the original article.

I thought: There's a Magnetic Fields song that goes "Well, you may not be beautiful, but it's not for me to judge. I don't know if you're beautiful because I love you too much." That is exactly how I feel about Atonement. About a hundred pages in, I felt myself losing the ability to write an objective, rational review. Barring the sudden appearance of, I don't know, dragons or spaceships or werewolves, I knew I was going to give this book an on-the-shelf, five-star, giddily gushing A+. So here we go!

Two of my literary pet peeves are 1) stupid and/or careless names for characters, and 2) females who were obviously written by a man. This novel won points in both of these departments right off the bat. Cecilia, Briony, Lola, Pierrot- many of the characters in Atonement have refreshingly unusual, intensely meaningful or referential names. As McEwan writes from their varied perspectives, especially in the first half of the book, we get to know each of their thoughts. In the chapters that he tells from a female point of view, I had to keep reminding myself that the author was actually a man. So good work, Mr. McEwan!

Another reason I was so immediately a fan of this book was the psychological, emotionally descriptive style. I love to know what's going on in another person's head, even (especially?) if that person is fictional. I know some readers get bogged down in this type of writing and become bored with the characters and their thoughts, but it's accessibly done here. I think Ian McEwan must be, like, the socially adept kid brother of Stream of Consciousness.

A couple of weeks ago, Connie reviewed Amsterdam, and it seems that these books share the same "repercussions of choices we make" theme. Really, in Atonement, it's not subtle. That IS the story here. But there are a few other interesting questions raised: can one atone for one's sins through writing? How important is the thin line between fiction and nonfiction?

Verdict: Shelf! Shelf-ity Shelf-ity Shelf.

Reading Recommendations: I wish I had read the book before seeing the (very faithful and beautifully done) movie. So if you haven't seen or read Atonement, read it first and then watch it.

Warnings: sex, swears, but most of all the hideousness of war.

Favorite excerpts:
"Yes. Unable to push her tongue against the word, Briony could only nod, and felt as she did so a sulky thrill of self-annihilating compliance spreading across her skin and ballooning outward from it, darkening the room in throbs. She wanted to leave, she wanted to lie alone, facedown on her bed and savor the vile piquancy of the moment, and go back down the lines of branching consequences to the point before the destruction began. She needed to contemplate with eyes closed the full richness of what she had lost, what she had given away, and to anticipate the new regime."

What I'm reading next: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers