Herbert's Reviews > Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan
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's review
Feb 02, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, essential, beautiful-writing

Like a lot of reviewers, I found the first fifty pages or so of Atonement difficult to get through. The prose seemed weighted down with descriptions and details, and I felt as suffocated by them as the occupants of the Tallis house are by the summer heat. Having finished the book, I can only assume that this early density was deliberate. The Byzantine sentences and descriptions, the fog of detail, where everything seems important whether it actually is or not, give way gradually to clarity and understanding, just as our protagonist, Briony, comes to understanding and clarity with the perspective that comes with maturity. This evolution, along with the deft characterizations and absolutely devastating ending, make Atonement one of the best books of the last decade.

The plot revolves around the things 13-year-old Briony imagines that she saw over the course of a hot summer day and evening in 1935. Her overheated imagination and lack of understanding of the adult world lead her to make an accusation and ruin the lives of two people. The consequences of her accusation then unfold over the decades, through the War, to almost the present day. Once the plot slid into motion, as smoothly as a Switch watch, I was surprised to find that even as I struggled with the dense style of the beginning of the book, I had developed an intense sympathy for the characters, even Briony, who at thirteen is nearly insufferable. That sympathy, won by McEwan through mechanisms I’m not sure I understand, made the second half of Part One difficult to read because it is difficult to watch people one cares about be destroyed by stupidity, malice, and stubbornness.

Part Two concerns the march to the evacuation at Dunkirk, portrayed as much more chaotic than the mythology of World War II would have us believe, and the chaos and sheer randomness are terrifying. Equally affecting is Robbie’s attempt to maintain his humanity and remember his reasons for survival, which are almost lost several times. It’s a propulsive war story in itself, which is then made even more compelling by Atonement’s brilliant ending.

After a third section, which describes preparations in London for the coming Blitz and offers a road map – as it were – for Briony to correct her error, the last section of Atonement could be easily overlooked, as a brief epilogue, which could be skipped if one were pressed for time. Doing so would be a mistake, however, because it is in the last section that Atonement changes from quality fiction into literature. Everything that has come before is called into question. The narrative is revealed as narrative, and subject to the whims of its author who may shape and mold and create truth as she pleases, and we are left wondering what really transpired between these characters. By implication, we also must question our own experience, for are we not authors of our own memories? Do we not adjust them in order to exonerate, aggrandize, chastise, or punish ourselves and others? Is it possible to know what is true? Does it matter?

I closed Atonement with a feeling of intense satisfaction. Not the kind of satisfaction one feels when the villain has been defeated and everyone lives happily ever after , but an intellectual satisfaction, that a great question had been presented, and I would have something to consider and wonder about for weeks to come. Many good books are satisfying, but only a few great ones are satisfying on that level. McEwan’s flawless craft and careful construction facilitate this deeply affecting conclusion, and Atonement is quite simply a great book, on all counts. I wish I could give it six stars.

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Reading Progress

February 2, 2012 – Shelved
March 14, 2012 – Started Reading
March 14, 2012 –
page 8
March 18, 2012 –
page 30
March 20, 2012 –
page 45
March 28, 2012 –
page 106
March 28, 2012 –
page 148
March 29, 2012 – Shelved as: fiction
April 2, 2012 –
page 230
April 4, 2012 –
page 299
April 5, 2012 – Finished Reading
April 6, 2012 – Shelved as: essential
April 6, 2012 – Shelved as: beautiful-writing

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