Monday, June 23, 2008

Books: Atonement, by Ian McEwan

I read Atonement for my book club (n.b. not of my own volition); I had carefully avoided the movie and all other Ian McEwan (except the excellent Cement Garden) novels up to this point. I expected, from the film's trailer, a soporific historical melodrama, complete with floor-length ball gowns, snooping maids, a war, and an illicit affair. Indeed, McEwan gives us each of these cliches, and, while the book is more simpering than hackneyed, it's still not much worth the read.

The story goes as follows: Briony is an imaginative girl on the cusp of pubescence witnesses a few confusing events over a 24-hour period: first, she sees her older sister Cecilia fighting with the charwoman's son Robbie in the garden, later that evening, he gives her a missive to pass onto Cecilia; it's a racy love letter (and includes the D.H. Lawrence-inspired word "cunt"). Briony of course reads it before handing it over, and an hour later walks in on the two of them in the dark library (they've been copulating, but Briony naively thinks that he was attacking her). Later that night, Briony's cousin, who's visiting (and is between Briony and Cecilia in age), is raped in the woods by a shadowy figure. Briony accuses Robbie of perpetrating the crime, and, based on her evidence, he is arrested, sent to prison for years, and then sent to France to fight the Germans (we are in the midst of WWII). Cecilia has cut herself off from her family for their willingness to turn so quickly against their own, and has become a nurse. Briony, now older and with the realization of what she's done, elects to train as a nurse as well, rather than attending Cambridge and fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. Ultimately, she apologizes to both Cecilia and Robbie, and makes what legal amends she can. The couple remains together, and Briony eventually does become a successful novelist; the book we have been reading, it turns out, is Briony's account of the story and her own atonement.

McEwan divides the book into three plus an epilogue; the first begins with the strange argument at the fountain, and ends in Robbie's arrest. The second describes Robbie's time in the war, marching across France through hunger, thirst, and the constant threat of death by Luftwaffe. I would have liked to see only these two sections, vying against each other as domestic fantasy versus worldly realism, without romantic resolution; that would have been an interesting project. Instead, the novel continues; the third book describes Briony's challenging training as a nurse, her decision to at last visit her sister, and make the necessary amends. The epilogue jumps to 1999, when Briony is an old woman diagnosed with impending dementia, celebrating her birthday will all of her extended family (Cecilia and Robbie since dead).

There is, at one moment, on page 265 of my edition, in fact, when McEwan redeems, momentarily, the tedium of languorous book one, in which each sentence describes the richness of a color, the quality of the air, the flashing of the light. We realize that Book One is young Briony's draft of a story describing what happened that day, which story she has submitted to a London literary magazine. She receives a lengthy, personalized rejection letter, which acknowledges the curious spell she casts, but criticizes her as perhaps too indebted to Virginia Woolf, too climatic, too woozy, too interested in the rocks and air rather than the propulsion of the plot. These criticisms are, to the reader, a kind of professional concurrence (Yes! It was far too ambient and flowery!), and it is somewhat redeeming that McEwan was aware of that fact (I did find it strange that his sentences were so mellifluous, given the taught, snappy quality of The Cement Garden). However, intentionally writing poorly is not as acceptable as simply writing well (unless one is writing poorly brilliantly, as Jonathan Safran-Foer does in Everything is Illuminated.

Atonement was written, and, I imagined, filmed, for a simpering crowd of effeminate, romantic readers who wet their pants over sensitive soldiers and the rustling of silk gowns. McEwan ought to have been more attentive to Lawrence and less attentive to Woolf, had he wanted to write something truly edgy and interesting. As it stands, this book is little more than daydream fodder for the sighing masses.

Points, though, for using the name Briony.

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