Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reading Journal: Atonement, by Ian McEwan (2001)

Even after an epigraph from Austen, which should alert anyone that the book they're about to read will be a slog, I nearly gave up on this one around the 50-page mark. The omniscient narration, the static settings, the undue emphasis given to shadow and light and scents in the air were vivid, but they didn't seem to be going anywhere, and if not for his reference to Lady Chatterley's Lover, I might not have twigged to what was happening here: not only was McEwan writing a book set in 1935, he was trying to write a book written in 1935. Thankfully, once over that "hump" - a modernist trick Jonathan Franzen uses and calls attention to in The Corrections, as well - the action shifts to Dunkirk and the young lovers painstakingly (but increasingly compellingly) drawn in the first section begin coming to life as difficult circumstances push their limits: in the first act, a young girl accuses a family friend of sexual assault, and this friend is the one who goes to war in the second. I won't spoil the third, but the title should tell you the central problem that remains to be resolved. In the end, I'm very glad I didn't give up on it: it's high modernism, and yet it's a challenging contemporary read while being easy to understand. I think it will land on Contemporary English/British Literature course lists the world over, if it hasn't already, and will likely be read in high school, too - its opening is just "boring" enough - and from time to time, the narrator, through Briony, (the young witness who also wishes to be a writer), questions how to write a story, which serves as a steady reminder that there's still a point of view outside the frame, and the quest to find out where it's all coming from is what keeps you reading right through the almost unnecessary coda. (I'm not great with the vocabulary, but were the coda not provided, would the work have then been "postmodern"?) Some elements of the book weren't for me - mainly that it was obviously designed to be work to read - but you'll get out of this one what you put into it, and that's why it should endure, and will. Justly a "modern classic."


  1. Strange coincidences: this morning I thought of Atonement as a book I'd enjoy reading again this winter (if I could only find my copy). Then this afternoon, I meet you, check out your website, and you've just read it. I must say that while I'd agree with you on the acres of type spent on descriptions, as a designer and gardener, I didn't find any of it to be work to read. Instead his language was powerfully visually evocative for me. The story remains one of the most dramatic and compelling that I have ever read. Nevertheless I remember in book club at least two people who felt exactly as you did (the word "languid" comes to mind, though I'm not sure if it was actually used ... so long ago).

    Thanks for the chat!

  2. Wow; I'd forgotten that "blog" even existed: talk about bizarre. One more thing to thank you for.