Ian McEwan’s tale of a budding novelist who misinterprets the adult world around her, and shatters lives as a result, is many things: meta-fiction, a love story, a war story, a deep, probing look at human psychology. It’s also a pretty decent read, if you like any or all of that sort of thing.
Briony Tallis, in 1935, is a young girl standing at the edge of adulthood. Amidst tensions heightened by the threat of war, cousins arriving to stay because of their parents’ divorce, and normal family drama, Briony witnesses a strange moment between her older sister, Cecilia, and their landscaper (and childhood friend), Robbie Turner. As Cecilia and Robbie realize their feelings for one another, Briony is unwittingly (although a some points voluntarily) drawn into their story, and is not capable of understanding its themes. As a result, when their cousin Lola is raped, Briony witnesses the attacker leaving the scene of the crime, and points to Robbie. Consequently, the young lovers are separated and the family is driven apart. Later, as World War II gears up, Robbie, an infantryman fleeing France, is trying to return to Cecilia, a nurse in London. Briony, in training to also become a nurse, has slowly realized her mistake and attempts to regain contact with her sister and atone for her crime.
Ugh. Sorry for that horribly clunky synopsis. It’s difficult to summarize, especially when one is largely trying to avoid any major spoilers. Additionally, so much of the novel is internal that there are only a few real moments in time to discuss. That, I think, is the major failing of Atonement. I’m all for talk and no action, but it’s got to be done really well. I also generally have no problem with lots of words or description (see: love of Victorian novels) but something about McEwan’s style just doesn’t work for me. Well, some of the time.
The novel, we discover, is written as though by Briony herself, much later in life. The story is, in fact, her atonement. As such, it’s separated into three parts: the first written from the perspective of the thirteen-year-old Briony, the second dealing with Robbie in France and his communications with Cecilia in London, and the third focusing on Briony as an eighteen-year-old, in London as a nurse-in-training when the first wave of wounded soldiers comes pouring into the hospitals. That first section, frankly, made me want to fling the book across the room. SO incredibly florid, with a description for every object that comes into a view; a description designed to apply some very serious, deep, and meaningful importance to said item. I think I would not have continued reading had Part II not cleaned up its act. I tend to enjoy war narrative, and this one is pretty solid. The language tones down, the descriptions of the horrors of war are effective, and one finds that one is actually somewhat invested in the characters by this time. Part III, too, is much tidier, although it returns to the introspective tone of the first section. Again, this is all done as a means of making it seem as though the work is that of Briony. While I appreciate that, it was still a bit much for me.
Essentially, I felt as though McEwan was trying to combine styles somehow. With the early setting of an English estate, there is very much a sense of reference to earlier, Victorian work, and then for Part III, more of a nod to the “newer” style which Briony is trying to emulate. The distinct styles of writing, while interesting and a little impressive in their use, make the novel as a whole feel rather disjointed. Or they did to me. The story itself is a good one, although some of the turns it takes are a little weird. I will also warn you that this is not one of those “happy ending” stories. It’s pretty bleak in its realism. I’m curious to see the movie now to see what they do with that. Don’t tell me … I’ll get around to it at some point. After I go read something fun and silly and palate-cleansing. Stay tuned for Nancy Drew!