Arctic's Reviews > Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
678071
's review
Dec 25, 07

bookshelves: db, modern-lit, rgbc, bookchallenge08
Read in January, 2008

I like this book better the more I think about it. My initial reaction was that it was an elaborate bit of clever trickery, but the depth of the writing is what redeems it.

favorite quotes (possible spoilers):

Chapter 1

At the age of eleven she wrote her first story—a foolish affair, imitative of half a dozen folktales and lacking, she realized later, that vital knowingness about the ways of the world which compels a reader’s respect. But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: once she had begun a story, no one could be told. Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing to let anyone know. Even writing out the she saids, the and thens, made her wince, and she felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions of an imaginary being. Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character’s weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have? Only when a story was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished story in the world, could she feel immune, and ready to punch holes in the margins, bind the chapters with pieces of string, paint or draw the cover, and take the finished work to show to her mother, or her father, when he was home.

Her efforts received encouragement. In fact, they were welcomed as the Tallises began to understand that the baby of the family possessed a strange mind and a facility with words. The long afternoons she spent browsing through dictionary and thesaurus made for constructions that were inept, but hauntingly so: the coins a villain concealed in his pocket were “esoteric,” a hoodlum caught stealing a car wept in “shameless auto-exculpation,” the heroine on her thoroughbred stallion made a “cursory” journey through the night, the king’s furrowed brow was the “hieroglyph” of his displeasure.

Writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm….Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for
an unruly world could be made just so.

The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained.



Chapter 2

It made no sense, she knew, arranging flowers before the water was in—but there it was; she couldn’t resist moving them around, and not everything people did could be in a correct, logical order, especially when they were alone.



Chapter 3

Was everyone else really as alive as she was?… Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance.

A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.

It was a temptation for her to be magical and dramatic, and to regard what she had witnessed as a tableau mounted for her alone, a special moral for her wrapped in a mystery. But she knew very well that if she had not stood when she did, the scene would still have happened, for it was not about her at all. Only chance had brought her to the window.

None of these three was bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.



Chapter 4

She lolled against the warm stone, lazily finishing her cigarette and contemplating the scene before her—the foreshortened slab of chlorinated water, the black inner tube of a tractor tire propped against a deck chair, the two men in cream linen suits of infinitesimally different hues, bluishgray smoke rising against the bamboo green. It looked carved, fixed, and again, she felt it: it had happened a long time ago, and all outcomes, on all scales—from the tiniest to the most colossal—were already in place. Whatever happened in the future, however superficially strange or shocking, would also have an unsurprising, familiar quality, inviting her to say, but only to herself, Oh yes, of course. That. I should have known.



Chapter 7

But of course, it had all been her—by her and about her—and now she was back in the world, not one she could make, but the one that had made her, and she felt herself shrinking under the early evening sky.

She decided she would stay there and wait until something significant happened to her. This was the challenge she was putting to existence—she would not stir, not for dinner, not even for her mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance.


Chapter 8

Despite his first, the study of English literature seemed in retrospect an absorbing parlor game, and reading books and having opinions about them, the desirable adjunct to a civilized existence.



Part 2

“I’ll wait for you. Come back.”

He walked/across/the land/until/he came/to the sea.

It was madness to go to the man’s defense, it was loathsome not to. At the same time, Turner understood the exhilaration among the tormentors and the insidious way it could claim him. He himself could do something outrageous with his bowie knife and earn the love of a hundred men. To distance the thought he made himself count the two or three soldiers in the circle he reckoned bigger or stronger than himself. But the real danger came from the mob itself, its righteous state of mind. It would not be denied its pleasures.



PART 3

For a while she thought of herself as a kind of medical Chaucer, whose wards thronged with colorful types, coves, topers, old hats, nice dears with a sinister secret to tell. In later years she regretted not being more factual, not providing herself with a store of raw material. It would have been useful to know what happened, what it looked like, who was there, what was said. At the time, the journal preserved her dignity: she might look and behave like and live the life of a trainee nurse, but she was really an important writer in disguise. And at a time when she was cut off from everything she knew—family, home, friends—writing was the thread of continuity. It was what she had always done.

What excited her about her achievement was its design, the pure geometry and the defining uncertainty which reflected, she thought, a modern sensibility. The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it. If only she could reproduce the clear light of a summer’s morning, the sensations of a child standing at a window, the curve and dip of a swallow’s flight over a pool of water. The novel of the future would be unlike anything in the past. She had read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves three times and thought that a great transformation was being worked in human nature itself, and that only fiction, a new kind of fiction, could capture the essence of the change. To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design—this would be an artistic triumph.

She learned a simple, obvious thing she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.

Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion? Yes, indeed. And having done so, might she obscure the fact by concocting a slight, barely clever fiction and satisfy her vanity by sending it off to a magazine? The interminable pages about light and stone and water, a narrative split between three different points of view, the hovering stillness of nothing much seeming to happen—none of this could conceal her cowardice. Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella—and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.




London, 1999

No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists.

5 likes · likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Atonement.
sign in »

Quotes Arctic Liked

Ian McEwan
“There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement

Ian McEwan
“A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader's. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement


Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

Michelle Moyes Hey! I just read Atonement and I'm trying to analyze the first chapter for an assignment. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on the first sentence of the novel? The really long complex periodic sentence. What do you think the intended effect is? I'm thinking that it's meant to reveal Briony's complex personality and her tendency to go overboard...but I don't feel like I'm going deep enough.


Arctic THE PLAY—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

I think you're right in that it shows how she goes overboard or otherwise gets easily wrapped up in her ideas, setting herself up for future disappointment and embarrassment. Perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come. It also imprints in the mind of the reader that this is how Briony is and this is what we can expect from her; she can't be blamed if things go awry when she's just being herself. Or can she?

If you were trying to provide explanations in her position, how would you present yourself? We're only seeing what the author wants us to see.

Good luck with your paper.


back to top