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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Started 5/29, finished 6/5

Ian McEwan has been described as a "master prose stylist", but I think it should be more like "master prose artist". He's not Nabokov, and he's not Philip Roth, and he's not like the great capital-W Writers you think of from literature classes. What he does is more restrained and transparent than usual: the prose becomes invisible and you forget you are reading at all.

I'm a slow reader... when I finish a book like this in five or seven or ten days it represents a lot of time spent reading. Since I never read when my boy is awake, it only happens between 8pm and about midnight. For Atonement, I spent three days in a row reading from the moment the lad's head hit the pillow until 11:30 or so, at my customary pace of 20 pages per hour. Usually my neck hurts, I have to adjust pillows in the couch or the bed just to stay comfortable. Usually I don't get more than 25-30 pages a day.

But this book flowed like Niagra Falls... and I didn't up my pace. It's not like Vonnegut or many of the journalism-style writers. The prose is dense and layered and so very involved in its period that I still read slowly, but with more pleasure than usual.

Having said all that, I'd really recommend reading the book before reading any more of this. I went into it blind and that's the way Atonement should be read. Anything you read below will likely take away some enjoyment from first contact.

The structure of the book is enjoyable, but it led me to some questions: why spend so much time with Briony and Cecilia before the war? I understand you want to build up the characters through the long languid scenes, but why do you need so much of it? Then, after "the crime", why jump ahead so far? Is it to build suspense about what happened? Is it to give the characters some years to age?

The questions continued. Why go through 50 pages of pre-war English society and 50 pages of the harrowing retreat to Dunkirk and 50 pages of brains and pus in the hospital?

I read with faith that McEwan would explain it, and he did. Those pages are the atonement, the price the characters and even we the readers pay for Briony's crime. He is trying to make it very clear: twenty-one-year-old Robbie wouldn't have to steal an insignia from a dead officer, Eighteen-year-old Briony would never have to put a soldier's brains back in his head, if it weren't for what the thirteen-year-old Briony did.

But what ties the novel together, probably the single element that merited all the prizes and recognition, was the end after the end, the part that takes us past the fourth wall and into some fundamental questions about the nature of literature and history. If you don't write it down, it never happened. If I [eighty-year-old Briony] hadn't told you what a wonderful ending Robbie and Cecilia shared, you would never have heard their story. You might have found out one version of the truth (the events that actually occurred), but you see, that way you would have remembered the unimportant thing. The important thing is not that they died before they ever got to reconnect, but that I told you they did get to reconnect, and that's what you get to remember.

Isn't that wonderful? It kinda reminds me of Roth's American Pastoral, "I dreamed a realistic chronical." I'm reading fiction in which the narrator informs the reader that what they're reading is only made up. Two degrees of fiction. I feel almost like I'm near the edge of a profound discovery, and that someone out there knows what I'm getting at and will be able to put the final analytical piece in place for me, but I can't seem to get through to it. There's something far more interesting about this concept than I've been able to give justice. Maybe one day, if I read enough Harold Bloom, I'll be able to hop onto it.

As a side note, this book contains the single best literary rejection letter I've ever read. I promise if I ever get one like that I'll do everything it suggests. I will not feel incensed or even particularly rejected. In fact, it's 9/10ths of an acceptance letter, and it's probably the only thing in the book that asked me to suspend disbelief.

I hope the movie doesn't suck. Is it me or is Keira Knightly (Cecilia) a little overexposed and a little too overworked to become the actress she wants to become? I didn't particularly like her fiery Elizabeth Bennett... thought it was more Pirates of the Carribean than Jane Austen.

Book #16 will be Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut



Anonymous guile said...

atonement.. i love that book :)..

Wed Jul 19, 02:19:00 AM  
Anonymous euroarabe said...

i love it too! great review for a great writer..

ian mcewan in order for me:

thanks for visiting my blog and caring and congrats on the new baby!

Wed Jul 19, 09:48:00 PM  

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