Kelly's Reviews > Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan
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Nov 14, 07

bookshelves: fiction, brit-lit, worlds-lost-dead-and-dying, owned, 21st-century, grand-opera, melancholia
Recommended for: those who like character studies, chamber dramas, and psych
Read in November, 2007

Is there word beyond 'amazing' that I can use? Some word beyond 'enthralling'? I need them. I'm reaching for them. But I literally just finished the book and I'm so much in awe of it I just can't. It's perfect. It's perfect in every image and line and mirror and echo. Ian McEwan is such a master of language and storycraft.

I devoured this book in a day. Less than a day. Ignoring all other work to do so. And it was TOTALLY worth it.

I can't think of what to praise first this point, so I'm going to go in random order. I'll start with the language. It's enthralling. It's that that draws you into the story. The story moves rather slowly, really. Half of the book takes place on a single day. But it is the language that makes you not care. The wordchoice is enchanting, just so. Gorgeous imagery interposed with just the right touch of magic to keep it beautifully fresh. He weaves his images throughout the text, having them pop up again and again, subtly. For instance, a pair of boy's pajamas becomes a symbol of war and horror as well as innocence ruined and then vague oppression and doubt renewed throughout the novel. A finger becomes a sense of self and changed identity at various points. It's just gorgeously done.

The storycraft is so perfect too. I love how he chooses to do it, switching from perspective to perspective, but always with the center on this delusional little girl, and the echoes of her own storymaking. It is story that screws over them all in the end. But it is story that resurrects them too. I loved his inward musings on writing, and his critique of his own writing within the text. It's a bit of a breaking of the fourth wall that's done with a rather sad irony, but it still brought a smile to my face.

I really enjoyed the themes that he explored too. Eventually I'll post some of my favorite quotes to give an idea of the beauty of the language and ideas that he explores as well, but in general... I think my favorite idea that he dealt with was the idea of order as a kind of childishness. As a kind of little, small denial of the world. The entire book shows the folly of order and what it does to our souls and minds. (quotes to come on this). I also loved his treatment of the all consuming nature of guilt. Atonement. Atonement indeed.

Amazing. I cannot recommend this enough.
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Quotes Kelly Liked

Ian McEwan
“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.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement


Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Taylor K. hey, we're reading this at the same time! whee.


Kelly Oh yay! We can discuss as we go along!


Doc Bullfrog Was on the fence about this one but you convinced me. Nice review!


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

Kim I was not impressed. I think it had to do with the hype. I think I'm in the minority with this though.


Jessica I'm with you Kim. I thought the beginning terrific, the middle a big bore, and the ending okay...It's been awhile since I read it, but I thought what started out brilliantly did not live up to its promise.


Doc Bullfrog Uhoh-now I'm confused...


Jessica oh well, sorry Doc! It's my job to confuse people I think...but read the book! It's a worthwhile read for sure. And let us know what you think...


Kelly I have heard several people say that they were disappointed with the end. I can see why now, with some distance from the book. I just think my love for the rest perhaps carried me through it, and it really just did not bother me.

I hope you decide to read it, Doc. See for yourself.


Bibliomantic I liked that it ended the way it did. Maybe I'm a sucker for sadness in literature, but the tragic twist added profound emotional content for me. In some ways I find this type of an ending much more satisfying than the happily-ever-after variety.


Kelly I don't think the dissatisfaction was with the lack of happily-ever-after. I think it was with the lack of what would be thought of as a real /ending/. If I remember correctly, McEwan is really indefinite there, there wasn't a real "wrap up," so to speak. I liked that there wasn't a choice made, and it made the reader think about their own preferences in what they chose to believe, what you expect out of a narrative, as opposed to life, etc. Not everyone felt that way. There may be other objections, that's just the one I'm familiar with.


Bibliomantic Hmm, it's been a while since I read it so I may remember something wrong, or perhaps having seen the film version has distorted my memory, but I thought the ending was pretty much a wrap up, albeit one that announces that much of what has been said up to that point wasn't true.


Taylor K. On my first read, I didn't have any problems with the ending. On a re-read, I kind of hated it. In a way, it seems like he admits, through Cecily, that he can't give the book the ending it deserves - so he pulls the old trick of "I don't know what to do for this story/film/etc, so I'm going to make it about not knowing what to do for it."

It seems like he's torn between his audience and himself, and I think the ending would've been much stronger if he had resolved that inner conflict and just went for ending it properly. I remember in my writing classes in college, the teacher used to ask us why we did this, or did we know the outcome of that, because, of course, if even the author didn't know, the audience wouldn't either, and I guess I get the feeling that he just didn't know.

That said, I thought everything up until the last few pages was delightful.


message 13: by Bibliomantic (last edited Aug 19, 2008 10:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bibliomantic The problem that isn’t really a problem is that this is a novel within a novel, and several planes coexist and are revealed to be so in the end. That Briony did something that destroyed two lovers’ future together is revealed early. That the novel is about her atoning for it is revealed as we read on. Nevertheless, we then find out the true nature of her atonement—i.e., in refusing to be forgiven, the refusal being a projection of her will, since (as we find out in the end) she had no choice in the matter, the two principals having died. Further, her will is about to be erased along with her memory due to her neurodegenerative disorder, and she herself will become essentially someone else than she’s been, continually rewriting who she is in her mind. Personally, I found the metafictional ending satisfying, and I seriously doubt that McEwan ran out of ideas. The very complexity of the ending leads me to believe that he designed it that way purposefully and indeed refused to settle for something conventional.


Taylor K. You make some very good points there. And despite my other comment, I don't have a problem with the concept, in theory, and it does make sense, in the frame of the novel, why he did what he did. I just didn't find it very satisfying. I didn't get that sense of awe and wonderment that I think I was expecting. And perhaps it's because he chose to divide our emotions, so they're less powerful. But at the same time, I've read endings far more vague, far more conflicting that have been stronger.

Again, this is how I feel after a second read, whereas I didn't have any problems with it on the first. Who knows, if I read it a third time, maybe I'll change my mind again.


Kelly As always, great review Kelly. I have actually triedd three times to read this book, but have often come up short in time and the ability to focus on the story completely. But reading this now was worth the wait, it's an enchanting, if gritty, read. But 480 pages?? I seriously only have 351 in mine!!


Kelly I have a reading discussion guide in mine and you never know about typesets- could also be a GR librarian error. In any case, thanks for the nice words and yeah- not everyone is a McEwan fan, but I'm glad you came to appreciate him in the end. He's lead me to good things.


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