Ian McEwan – Atonement
110. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
Length: 351 pages
Genre: Literary fiction; 2001 Booker Prize shortlist
Started: 06 November 2007
Finished: 12 November 2007
Summary: A misinterpretation of events by an over-imaginative young girl changes three lives forever. On one hot summer day in 1935, 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia argue with their housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, and then strip down and submerge herself in a fountain. This is the beginning of her imagined new understanding, the consequences of which reach far beyond the terrible events of that night and irrevocably change the courses of the lives of all three. This novel is told in four parts: the first, and longest, describes the events of the pivotal day and night; the second and third take place five years later, both in the British retreat from Dunkirk in France, and from the perspective of a nurse in London’s war hospitals; and the final section is a retrospective told from 1999.
Review: This book had been on the periphery of my radar for a long time; the upcoming movie pushed me into action to finally read it. And I’m so glad I did; it was wonderful. Not even the story, so much, although the plot is compelling, if somewhat oddly paced. The language, though, was beautiful, and terrifically evocative. McEwan describes sensations, emotions, or impressions, and they’re instantly familiar, either because it’s something you’ve felt before, exactly, or else because he describes it so well that it feels like you have. The sections that were the most vivid were those told from Robbie and Cecilia’s points of view, so I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more of them. However, Briony’s the central figure of the book, and she lives a lot more in her head than the other two, which made her more immediately recognizable (to me, anyways – I think I was that thirteen-year-old), but did make her sections a little more dispassionate. I was also all geared up to be disappointed by the ending; a small part of my brain is always judging the number of pages left against what I think it will take to get the resolution I want, and nearing the end of this book the tally was coming out disfavorably. However, on the second-to-last page, a missing piece clicks into place, and casts everything that has gone before in a different – and revelatory – new light. Overall, a fantastic book on repentance, and love, and forgiveness, and the wonderful and terrible ways we touch each others’ lives. 5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: This was my first Ian McEwan book, but it won’t be my last. Highly recommended.
- anodyne – anything that relieves distress or pain. “She … smelled pipe smoke in the folds of his clothes, prompting a moment’s nostalgia for afternoon tea visits to rooms in men’s colleges, rather polite and anodyne occasions mostly, but cheery too, especially in winter” – p. 44, “The war was going badly, but it was bound to pick up. It was one anodyne sentence that caught her attention now – not for what it said, but for what it blandly tried to conceal. The British army in northern France was ‘making strategic withdrawls to previously prepared positions.’” – p. 267
- battels – an account with or terminal bill from a college of Oxford University for board, kitchen, and buttery expenses. “Elsewhere, strewn between the revision notes, landscape gardening and anatomy piles, were various letters and cards: unpaid battels, letters from tutors and friends congratulating him on his first…” – p. 78
- pelmet – a decorative cornice or valance at the head of a window or doorway, used to cover the fastenings from which curtains are hung. “One of the curtains hung at a tilt below the pelmet, and though the windows were open, the air was dank, as though exhaled many times.” – p. 94
- toff – a stylishly dressed, fashionable person, esp. one who is or wants to be considered a member of the upper class. “He acted like an officer, but he didn’t even have a single stripe. On the first night, when they were sheltering in the bike shed of a burned-out school, Corporal Nettle said, “What’s a private soldier like you doing talking like a toff?”” – p. 181
- fifth columnists – a group of people who clandestinely undermine a larger group to which it is expected to be loyal. “Perhaps London would be overwhelmed by poisonous gas, or overrun by German parachutists aided on the ground by fifth columnists before [the] wedding could take place.” – p. 271
- Bergsonian theories of consciousness – deals with stream of consciousness independent of framing concepts or intellect. “Your most sophisticated readers might well be up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I’m sure they retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens.” – p. 296.