Leigh's Reviews > Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan
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's review
Jul 31, 2007

liked it
bookshelves: genre-novels, subject-war, subject-war-wwii, won-national-book-critics-circle, 2000-present
I own a copy

When I'd just finished Part I, I wrote this:

"More than a little reminiscent of Woolf in its converging and diverging viewpoints, its serious concern with the portrayal of social and interior life... and of course the dinner-party scene. That part, I loved. I wasn't as keen on the latter third or so of Part One (too much prolepsis is nobody's friend), and Part Two thus far is slow going--which is surprising, as it's the WWII part! But it's early yet."

Despite being a perfectly good portrayal of men at war and of a dramatic historical moment (the evacuation from Dunkirk) that's mostly overlooked by historical fiction, Part Two never did manage to impress me. Mostly, I think we weren't given enough emotional insight into Robbie in Part One, so being dropped into war-torn Europe with him in Part Two was no more than abstractly affecting. I also couldn't tell how much of the "mystery" from Part One was supposed to be telegraphed, but there were no surprises for me in the final revelations.

That said, I loved the Tallis women, and was particularly impressed by McEwan's insights into what it means to be a woman; see Briony's wry observation in the closing section about the veteran colonel who resents the feminine presumption of writing about war. Overall, Part Three was by far the most compelling as a narrative, and after a lot of vacillating, I was finally sold on the book by the final section, where all its slightly precious metafictive devices were finally justified. For some reason, McEwan writing about Briony writing about Briony learning to write (i.e., her insight while watching the fountain scene) just felt self-indulgent. But when the last level settled into place--McEwan writing about Briony writing about Briony writing about Briony learning to write--I got interested in what he was saying. I don't know how that works.

Moreover, what could have felt pat and cynical in that final section (the author's deceptions and conflations, the rewritten happy ending, the dreaded first-person flash-forward to The Present) was actually quite moving and smart.

Also, this passage was fabulous:

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.

(The little echo of Hamlet in "The attempt was all" didn't hurt either.)
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Dusty (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dusty Myers Really great review. Opened up a lot of the book (your take on Part 2, for instance) that I hadn't considered. Thanks.

message 2: by Meg (new) - rated it 4 stars

Meg Allan Quite the contrary for me, I found section one slow and tedious, although the writing itself was beautiful. The second section was far more fast paced and easier to submerge myself into, perhaps because of the evident plot that McEwan as Briony included due to being told her novella lacked plot.
The fact that this novel is meta fiction is what makes me adore it so. Writing about writing. Genius.

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