Ian McEwan

Atonement

Perhaps more a book to be discussed than enjoyed.

Spoilers.

Atonement is broken up into four very distinct parts. I found the first part the least engaging, which (unfortunately for me) was over half of the entire book. This could perhaps be put down to masculine preference: part one focuses on the minutia of a precocious ‘tween’ girl’s thoughts, whereas parts two and three centre on incidents in WW2 – the evacuation from Dunkirk, and the experience of nurses receiving the wounded back in England. The very short final part plays with the story/author within the story.

There’s no doubting that McEwan can write. He appears to have a real concern for period detail. I say ‘appears’ because I’m not an expert on 1930s/early WW2 Britain. That being said, it’s a time that interests me, and I’ve spent a fair bit of time in primary source material by authors like George Orwell, John Wain, and C.S. Lewis – or even the slightly earlier P.G. Wodehouse). One of the pleasures of this book is the evocation of the manners, attitudes and settings of an English country house, the Tommies awaiting rescue, and the cold Victorian officious stoicism of a hospital (all strikingly juxtaposed with the 21st Century post-script/Part 4). He vividly takes you into these places, adding highly effective details (such as the petty nonsense of having to line up each of the wheels on each hospital bed). His characters are clearly individual and largely avoid stereotype. The plot issues are powerful.

Still I’m playing the ‘personal web review’ card and less concerned with whether this book was well written than if it works for someone like me. When McEwan’s lavishing this time and detail onto the wartime settings I was really drawn in. However when he’s doing the same, as he is for most of the book, for the country house through the eyes of a consciously myopic young girl, I found it laboured and eventually tiresome. Perhaps he felt he needed to go into such extensive psychological detail to justify Briony’s awful crime. Not, that is, to make it any less awful, but to make her action plausible without painting her as an absolute villain. Even if he achieved this, it was at the crucial expense of pace. Not that you need to have three gruesome deaths on every page to write a gripping story, but that donating more space to, say, a tantrum exploring each thought a girl has as she hacks at nettles with a stick, than you do to, say, those of a central character getting out of jail after being unjustly sentenced, is – to this reader – troublesome. Again, I can see reasons why he spelt some things out as carefully as he did, but I can’t say this was entertaining. Perhaps it gave some more nuance to Briony and her relationships, more intellectual grounding to her actions. Maybe it was to show critics he could write from a textured female perspective (I just noticed that I described his novel ‘Amsterdam’ as ‘masculine’). Whatever – I found the sheer volume of words to set up Briony’s crime actually denuded its impact.

Hence it’s so refreshing when we suddenly leap under fire into France. This episode is powerfully and richly conveyed (with McEwan later cheekily hinting at the sort research he may have undertaken by inserting his faux author into the last passage) – I’m disappointed that I missed that part of the movie (it was odd coming at a book that I dimly ‘remembered’ parts of before I read it, having flicked over to it now and then while watching something else on another channel), which seemed very faithful in the parts I caught (the incident at the fountain, Briony giving her name to the dying French soldier). Similarly the evocation of a nurse’s training and context in London at this time was visceral and absorbing. As an aside, I happened to be looking into some of the events surrounding Dunkirk as part of an essay a class of mine was doing on Winston Churchill, and ‘Atonement’ really hammers the massive resentment the army felt towards the RAF (with them suggesting the ‘A’ stood for ‘Absent’). My tiny bit of googling made me aware that there are two sides to this debate (some arguing that the RAF were engaged, indeed, stretched, to protect the evacuees but not within sight of the beaches, others that Churchill consciously exposed the troops because he didn’t think he could afford to risk losing too many planes in anticipation of a German invasion). I’m sure McEwan has a much more informed opinion of this, but Atonement is entirely justified in conveying the anger of the infantry, whether or not it was entirely justified.

I can’t let this review pass without rolling my eyes and shaking my head at yet another ridiculously juvenile sex scene (cf.Price's The Labyrinth Makers) in an otherwise adult novel. Why would an author be so concerned for plausibility in some areas so blithely produce the Mills and Boon/”I never thought this would happen to me..” cross of Robbie and Cecilia’s ludicrous library encounter? “His experience was limited and he only knew at second hand that they need not lie down. As for her, beyond all the films she had seen, and the novels and lyrical poems she had read, she had no experience at all.” Yet there is not a hint of self-consciousness, innocence, or inexperience as waves crash against the shore in perfect ecstasy. This was so gratuitous, so absurd, and so out of step with the characters and the time. This was the first instant either of them had acknowledged to each other that they even had any feelings for each other. They’d barely even realised it themselves. This was enough. Plotwise, Briony could still misinterpret a passionate embrace. Even just a kiss to demonstrate the radical new turn in their relationship could have been painted powerfully and convincingly. But this daydream nonsense? Puh-leaase.

I’m not so sure about the ‘story within the story’ final part (much as in the last book I read, The Messenger, which has something similar.  Indeed, I’m getting a bit over this as Foer's Everything Is Illuminated was also a recent read). Yes, there’s some interest in throwing around questions about how an author may mix biography and fiction, but unless McEwan himself is widely known to have been involved in similar events, the Briony as author/unreliable narrator thing is purely to be judged on whether it works as fiction. It’s a device, and importantly a surprise ending device. It does work in some ways to have us re-evaluate the previous events, but does this re-evaluation add to the pleasure and the impact of the novel? I don’t really think so. It actually made it harder for me to care for the characters as the book challenges your suspension of disbelief (‘Briony’ has altered events, challenging the credibility of the previous three parts) – but then wants you to double it (‘Briony is still a character we’re supposed to believe in as an author closely linked to the events of the previous parts). The only book I can currently think of which successfully incorporated an ‘author’ into the narration, even blurring the lines between the ‘real’ author, was Primo Levi in The Wrench. To quote myself:

Rather than remain invisible and let ‘Faussone’ do all the talking, the listener/narrator is also allowed to take on a role – the stories are clearly placed in a setting of Faussone talking to the semi-autobiographical persona of Levi. We learn a little of why he’s putting down these stories, his own speculation on whether writing is a worthy ‘craft’ compared to that of the tradesman, and he even drops in a work story of his own (as a chemist – Levi himself was a chemist) to conclude. Levi highlights the importance of the listener and the context to the stories, which, while entertaining enough to stand on their own, are enhanced by tangents of setting and response. Moreover there’s room for just a little plot and relationship development winding alongside the stories.

In the Wrench this element is integrated. In Atonement it feels a bit like a trick: didn’t McEwen think the story strong enough to stand on its own? He did well in giving a picture of the characters 50 years on, but I would have been happier if he had have dropped the Briony as author of what we’ve just read trope. It’s OK, we know we’re reading historical fiction. Maybe the idea was that we’d feel more for Briony – this was her ‘atonement’ – to give Robbie and Cecelia the happy ending she’d stolen from them in ‘real life’. If that was the idea, I don’t know that he quite pulled it off. If he wants to chat about the death of the author and such, I’d rather have it in an essay.

October 2010