Saturday, January 8, 2011

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Once again, I've found myself reading something I never really intended to read. Up until recently, all I knew about it came from the previews I'd seen for the movie version, and I wasn't too interested in those. But when I came across the book in a bookstore, the description on the back cover sounded more interesting than the impression I'd gotten from the previews, so I decided to go for it.

The story relates the events of one summer's day and night in 1935, and a misunderstanding which has a devastating impact on the lives of the people involved. Though there are a number of characters, the focus is on three central characters. They are Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl with a very active imagination; Cecilia Tallis, Briony's older sister; and Robbie Turner, Cecilia's childhood friend and the son of the family's charlady. The story focuses on each character in turn, and is written as if by an omniscient narrator.

I can't really say more about the plot without giving away huge chunks of the story, because only a small handful of events actually happen. The first 187 pages span only one day and night. This isn't because that space of time was jam packed with events; this is because the events of this period are related from three perspectives, and each goes into great detail about the character's thoughts. While this sounds horribly boring, I actually had very few problems with it. I found the characters' thoughts sufficiently interesting and believable to continue reading. There were only a few times where I got impatient for things to start happening. The descriptions of the setting, as well as the characters' thoughts and actions, are very rich in detail. The reader is given a very deep and clear image of what is going on at any given moment. But you definitely have to be in the right mood to read this style of writing, and depending on your tastes, you may never be in the right mood for it.

I thought the central characters were very well fleshed-out. Their thoughts read like the thoughts of an actual person. None of them were supremely virtuous or heroic; they were quite ordinary people. I appreciated that. However, some of the less pivotal characters were pretty flat. There was a standard-issue pair of mischievous twin boys, and a neglectful mother who ran off to be with her lover in Paris. While I don't expect every character to be fully explored and to undergo major personality development, I would appreciate it if the minor characters weren't so glaringly one-dimensional. I think it was really the twins that bothered me. They were a pair of rambunctious, freckled gingers who no one could really tell apart. I think they were supposed to be charming, but I mostly found them irritating. Perhaps they were intentionally written to be rather one sided since they were being seen from the perspectives of people who didn't seem to care about them all that much.

While I've probably made this book sound rather awful, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and read long chunks of it at each sitting. I would recommend it if you're interested in something more character-driven and enjoy really seeing through another person's eyes. One of the things I liked best about the book was how a few minor incidents appeared so differently to two of the characters. One particular event is Robbie coming to the house to borrow a book. It's a very innocuous situation, and yet it sends Cecilia's thoughts off in all kinds of directions. Here's her perspective on the event: "Two days before he had rung the front doorbell - in itself odd, for he had always had the freedom of the house. When she [Cecilia] was called down, he was standing outside asking in a loud, impersonal voice if he could borrow a book. As it happened, Polly was on all fours, washing the tiles in the entrance hall. Robbie made a great show of removing his boots which weren't dirty at all, and then, as an afterthought, took his socks off as well, and tiptoed with comic exaggeration across the wet floor. Everything he did was designed to distance her. He was play-acting the cleaning lady's son sent to the big house on an errand." (27)

But Robbie's perspective on the event is entirely different. "Kneeling to remove his work shoes by the front door, he had become aware of the state of his socks - holed at toe and heel and, for all he knew, odorous - and on impulse had removed them. What an idiot he then had felt, padding behind her across the hall and entering the library barefoot. His only thought was to leave as soon as he could." (84) It's not a central part of the plot, but those two passages do a fair job of illustrating the world inside this book. At the very beginning, the story isn't driven by events; it's driven by the characters' attempts to interpret each others' intentions, and it is a fatal error in this process which then leads to the defining event.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it. Don't read it when you're in the mood for some major action and fast-paced plot development, though. And while I don't know much about the film version, a friend's description of it gave me the impression that the movie was a love story. While love is a fairly important part of the book, I would by no means call it a love story. The title makes it pretty clear from the beginning that the book is about, well, atonement. So even if you were turned off by the previews for the movie, or by the movie itself, don't write this one off.


  1. The movie was soooo boring! Definitely one of my least favorite movies ever, even though James McAvoy was in it. I really hated it, but it sounds like the book might be a lot better. I like that narration style where you see different people's perspectives.

  2. I've been on the fence about this book - your post is making me more optimistic about reading it.


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