Friday, July 6, 2012

Atonement ~ Ian McEwan

There's something about Ian McEwan - maybe it's all of the 100 books to read before you die lists he's on, or maybe the summaries of his novels - that always makes me think I would like him.  I tried twice, with The Cement Garden and Atonement, and was disappointed both times.  With both novels, even while reading I felt like I should be enjoying them, but just didn't for some reason.  That was a few years ago, and I'd given up on McEwan, when I stumbled across the audiobook of Atonement at the library, and thought I'd give him another shot.  This is how I choose most of my audiobooks - whatever seems the most appealing/least unappealing choice at the library that day - and usually it works out, so I gave it a shot.

Before I get into the book, I need to relate how odd it was to read (listen to).  Odd, because I don't remember the last forty or so pages.  At all.  Most of the rest of it was familiar, but that last bit was a complete surprise.  I'm pretty sure I finished the book, partially because my bookmark (the receipt) for my physical copy is behind the cover and partially because who gives up on a book forty pages from the end, no matter how much they dislike it?  I had this experience once before, when rereading The Bell Jar which I really liked, and discovered that I had no memory of the whole of the second half.  And how strange that I should forget the end, rather than the beginning?

But, the book.  It starts on an unbearably hot day in the summer of 1935, when the Tallis family is expecting their only son and his friend home for a visit.  Also there are three cousins, the Quincy children, who are staying there during their parents' messy divorce.  The elder Tallis girl is languishing at home after completing college, while deciding what to do next, and avoiding the part-time landscaper, whom she resents and her father is about to put through medical school.  The mother is in bed with a migraine as usual, and the father is absent due to work, also as usual.  The younger daughter, Briony, is planning a production of a play she wrote in which her cousins will perform.  Though it seems an average day in the lives of this upper-class British family, it becomes the day on which childhood will end and the frailty of conviction will come crashing down, a day which will redefine the rest of all their lives.

McEwan tells his story from multiple points of view - the first section follows, in turns, Briony, her sister Cecilia, their mother, Emily, the landscaper, Robbie, and the Quincy children briefly.  The second section visits Robbie in France during World War II, and the third joins Briony in a war hospital shortly thereafter.  McEwan does a really nice job of showing how misunderstanding and misinterpretation arise, and how disastrous they can be, by describing the events from different perspectives.  As the novel progresses and we see the paths that each characters' choices lead them on, McEwan builds on this framework.

But the real heart of the story is Briony's reflections on writing and truth and experience.  She is the main catalyst for much of the story's conflict, because of how badly she misinterprets what she observes.  She muses on the act of writing and what kind of knowledge it requires of her, getting much of it wrong at the time when it means the most, though it is all very interesting.  She gets quite in-depth with her thoughts and as they unfold, you see them unfolding in the text of the novel itself.  Sometimes it's hard to see where Briony leaves off and McEwan picks up, or the other way around, as the novel creates and recreates itself from her thoughts.

I think I understand now why I have so much trouble with McEwan.  He gets really deep into his characters' heads, uncovering thought patters and progressions that feel quite natural.  Good, right?  Except that he also devotes a huge number of words to describing the physical scene, which results in a bit of a stand-still.  I don't require fast-paced novels by any means, but when 175 pages is devoted to one day, it gets a bit excessive.  The amount of time devoted to describing an action or thought is far longer than the amount of time required for the action or thought to unfold.  It almost feels more like a painting than novel - we get a moment in all it's detail, but hardly a story to go with it.  I enjoyed the novel more this time around, but especially on audiobook it got a bit tedious - the descriptions sometimes seem unending and leave little to the imagination.

My biggest complaint about this novel is that it is one line too long.  After Briony reflects on what to do with lovers in a novel, whether to subject them to grim realism or the hoped-for happy ending, the novel suddenly reverts to a what I read as a gimmicky line about Briony, who I feel should, at that point, remain the novelist and not the point of the novel.  Without that one line, which by my reading (though mine is certainly not the only reading) adds an unnecessary sense of melodrama to the end of the novel, the novel would have ended perfectly, in my opinion.  Though perhaps, because at that point the novel is in the first person, the point is that Briony has not grown as much as she and the reader think, and still is a child at the heart of her own performance.  But since her narrative voice is so caught up with McEwan's own, it's heard to untangle this strain from the intent of the noel.  It's an interesting conundrum, though that doesn't make me like that last line anymore.

A quick note on the audiobook: It's performed by Jill Tanner, who also read The Constant Princess (why is it that nearly all of the audiobooks I listen to are of British novels, read by British speakers?? - it is not intentional by any means).  To an uninformed American ear, Tanner's accent seems slightly high-falutin', but that actually fits the story perfectly, as every main character seems to have a heightened sense of his or her own worth and are clearly inhabit the upper crust of British society.  Tanner does a really good, faithful job with her performance, with subtle but distinct changes for different voices, and even a slight change to accommodate aging.  Though the flowery writing can be tough to follow on audio, Tanner's performance certainly helps matters.

I would probably recommend this to somebody who doesn't mind a quiet novel and likes to really think about the creation of writing.  It'll give you food for thought, even if it's slow going.  I think that I will even give McEwan another shot after this experience, with a whole new book and everything, though I'll probably stick to a print version, the better to get lost in his thoughts.

6 comments:

  1. "The amount of time devoted to describing an action or thought is far longer than the amount of time required for the action or thought to unfold." for this alone, I don't think I could read this novel. I definitely wouldn't finish it. I don't need a book to be wall-to-wall action but I need...something...to...happen.

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    1. Lol, I definitely understand that feeling and identify with it to a certain extent.

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  2. I've only read one McEwan (On Chesil Beach) and really liked it. But then it's not one of the more famous ones with lots of accolades, so maybe it's not representative of his work as a whole.

    I do want to try Atonement, but am now forewarned about the slow pace.

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    1. I've never heard of that one, but maybe I'll have to give it a try now that I'm actually starting to get on board with McEwan!

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  3. I loved Atonement and I thought the movie adaptation was pretty good as well. It's definitely one of the best books with an unreliable narrator.

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    1. You know, I know exactly what (un)reliable narrators are but always fail to think about narrators in that context. No idea why, but you're exactly right. Though it's probably a good thing that I didn't mention that or this post would be even longer!

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