Tom's Reviews > Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan
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Dec 14, 08

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Read in December, 2008

Atonement starts in 1935 at an aristocratic manor house in England. 13 year old Briony misinterprets a couple of sexually charged scenes she observes between her older sister and their cleaning woman's son. With a mixture of overestimating her own understanding and ability to protect her sister, and a desire to be the star of her own drama, Briony sets events in motion that send Robbie, the cleaning woman's son, to prison and eventually war. The second scene of the book takes place in 1940 as Robbie retreats with the British army from France, and Briony, who now understands what she did, tries to earn some measure of redemption.

It's going to take a while to describe what I liked about Atonement. The easiest positive to describe is McEwan's writing. It creates an intense believability and realism to the settings (although some of the events are less believable). I love the cadence of his writing, which flows throughout out the book, pulling you from one sentence to the next.

What I really loved however is incredibly disorganized in my mind, although it makes sense when McEwan writes it. Atonement encourages cyclical, seemingly unrelated ponderings that eventually all find order. There was a lot in this book that reminded me of my favorite author, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck often states, but doesn't over-state simple ideas about humans, that none-the-less feel profound. As I read Atonement I found myself led to truths that seemed obvious, but I had never clearly articulated in my own mind before. One of the most interesting and well told themes is the difference between the several characters who need to create an order to the world, an order that places them as the star of the drama, and the characters who are more "boring." Although boring is certainly used as a compliment here. I think there are things that go on in each of our minds that we are unsure of how common they are. Does everybody think what we do? Inevitably we make mistakes. We all assume there is great commonality in thoughts that may be fairly unique, while ascribing uniqueness to thoughts that are quite common. I found myself understanding the 13 year old Briony to an uncomfortable, although not surprising degree. In her innocently self centered way Briony constantly fantasizes about a world that arranges itself to maximize opportunities for her to be exceptional. In one scene she thrashes nettles with a stick and quickly starts to imagine nettle thrashing as an olympic event, with adoring crowds cheering her on. When she imagines tragedies befalling others, her chief thought is to how impressive she will be in eloquent grief. How many of us think this way, and to what degree? Obviously thinking and acting are two different things, and ultimately it's actions that count. However, as I read Atonement I thought about my own tendencies to star in my own dramas, described by McEwan with painful accuracy, and wondered to what degree do most people live these same fantasies.

Another quality of the book that reminded me of Steinbeck was the forgiveness with which McEwan treated sins like Briony's. At one point in Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck describes listening to an old fashioned fire and brimstone preacher in Vermont. Steinbeck found intense satisfaction in the assurance that he and the rest of the congregation were a pretty sorry lot of sinners, and that a clear, unambiguous vision of hell was waiting unless they repented. In Atonement McEwan presents faults in a simultaneously damning and forgiving manner. No vice is described that isn't echoed to a lesser degree by the virtuous characters. The message that we are all a pretty sorry lot of sinners was there, although the conclusion is one of tolerance rather than eternal damnation. Still, there is comfort in believing that our faults are shared to some degree by others. An unmentioned caveat is that if our faults aren't unique, than neither are our virtues, which brings us back to the inaccuracy of seeing ourselves as exceptional.

I'm not sure why it's enjoyable to ponder these ideas. Why is it enjoyable to write reviews on Goodreads? I'm afraid to admit that ultimately I like the version of myself that is thoughtful. And I'm afraid that I write reviews not to be helpful, but to hope that someone enjoys what I write. Gosh, maybe I'll even be impressive to them. How many of us have written in a journal and then secretly hoped someone would read it so they would know our inner thoughts? This is the path that Atonement led me down. It raised some uncomfortable questions, but also provided forgiveness and assurance that there is a difference between thoughts that reflect poorly on us and actions that do the same.

I have a few complaints about Atonement, but they're not terribly important. I read a couple of other people's reviews earlier. One said the book moved too slowly in some places and too quickly in others, and I would echo that. But Ultimately I found Atonement to be a beautifully written, thought provoking book that was still a great, readable story.
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