The Atonement by Ian McEwan

Until the last ten pages of this book, I was left somewhat disappointed. I felt McEwan had given a showy display of his obvious writing talent, able to detail even the most mundane and dull thoughts and boring events into a character’s thought pattern. Which is actually true, that’s what he did. The book’s plot is based on a shocking night of events and lies that end eventually in…. for you to find out.
Yet as grave as those events are, they, as well as their rippled effects, don’t support the gravity of 350 pages of detail. If you’re going to write a book of 350 pages, then they better have a little more plot and a little less conscious thought of each character about everything they are encountering.

Most of the time, I was able to swim through the paragraphs and link it to developing the character in some way, so you can’t ever say a word was useless. Yet was it all necessary? Until the end of the book, no, it wasn’t all necessary.

Then you discover, the book is actually the main character’s work, that of Briony Tallis, and she, not McEwan or some other narrator, is setting the tone. Then, the showy and detailed consciousness of each character makes sense, since the character of Briony, an ignorant and hard-headed writer who loves attention and much to-do about herself, is the one writing it. And it all comes together.

Atonement. At the end of the book, Briony says, “The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

Briony recognizes her sin as unforgivable. My contempt for her burned hot enough that I vocalized a couple choice words for her at one point in my basement while reading. Her whole story was to show her recognition of this, and then to somehow give an enduring love to her sister and Robbie with each person’s completion of her novel.

We read her purpose in ending the story as she did, then we finish with a autobiographical narrative of the book, learning the true outcome. Briony herself said the real ending was too harsh and had no hope or message for the reader, and so was replaced with what actually was. So why do we, the real reader, get to end on such a sad note? Because the story isn’t about Cecilia and Robbie. It’s about Briony. It’s about her character development, and what happened to her. It’s about her Atonement. Is there still hope? Yes. One of my favorite passages was in a letter to Robbie from Cecilia while he was in France. He carried it in his pocket on the way back to Dunkirk: “I know I sound bitter, but my darling, I don’t want to be. I’m honestly happy with my new life and my new friends. I feel I can breathe now. Most of all, I have you to live for. Realistically, there had to be a choice–you or them. How could it be both? I’ve never had a moment’s doubt. I love you. I believe in you completely. You are my dearest one, my reason for life. Cee.” Another letter, she ends: “You’re in my thoughts every minute. I love you. I’ll wait for you. Come back. Cee.” It keeps Robbie alive.

McEwan uses incredible imagery, even if he causes us to OD on it. “the search for the cool corner of the pillow” or “His most sensual memories–their few minutes in the library, the kiss in Whitehall–were bleached colorless through overuse.” Or, “He felt the pain in his side like a flash of color.” Excellent imagery.

While I’m here, let me say a little something about the movie. The cinematography was excellent, as was the acting. But the story becomes about the two lovers, and not Briony. The story is about Robbie and Cecilia, but not centrally, and the movie makes it so, which of course makes sense, it is a love story. Some may argue the film does no such thing, since the final interview contains the remaining details about the truth of Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia, but then we are left with exactly what Briony wants, a happy image of the two on the beach arm in arm. Yes, it makes us feel happy, but it subverts the ending of the book in my opinion. I wonder what McEwan had to say about it.

Then again, you could ask if I subvert the meaning of this blog and of the book itself by my use of photos of the movie in the book’s description? What a post-modern thing to do:)

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One thought on “The Atonement by Ian McEwan

  1. blake says:

    You know there is no ‘the,’ right? It’s just Atonement. People are going to think you’re writing about Jebus.

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