BOOK NOTES #7: Atonement


Atonement is one of those books that I can slip into seamlessly, again and again.  I open its cover, read the first sentence, and before I know it I’ve finished a handful of chapters. I felt the same way with Jane Eyre (which I just talked about in my last post), and so I wonder if this slipping seamlessly thing is just a result of a first person narrative.  Regardless, re-reading Atonement was a treat.

Maybe it’s because I’ve become more serious about writing—and writing well—or maybe I’ve become a more active reader, but whatever the case, I noticed that I was a lot more sensitive and attentive to Ian McEwan’s language than to what was going on in the story superficially. I really like vivid descriptions, and Part I of Atonement is chock-full of them. I don’t think I can quote all my favorites—I might as well transcribe the entire section—but here are some that made me especially giddy:

She thought how she might describe it, the way they bobbed on the illuminated water’s gentle swell, and how their hair spread like tendrils and their clothed bodies softly collided and drifted apart. The dry night air slipped between the fabric of her dress and her skin, and she felt smooth and agile in the dark.

(Chapter 13)

Wow. Could that not have sounded anymore like poetry?

She could describe this delicious air too, the grasses giving off their sweet cattle smell, the hard-fired earth which still held the embers of the day’s heat and exhaled the mineral odor of clay, and the faint breeze carrying from the lake a flavor of green and silver.

(Chapter 13)

So much awesome in one sentence. I like how McEwan brings the scenery to life. Briony isn’t the active here, it’s the landscape: the grass gives, the earth exhaled, the breeze carried. She is merely the passive receiver (and yet at the same time, not really—she is describing this scene to the reader). And the bit about the earth holding embers of the day’s heat? Wow. Is there a name for this sort of descriptive technique? There must be.

Gushing aside, Atonement is a complicated book. The plot is simple enough: A moment at the fountain. A misunderstanding. Further moments. A lie (or is it?). And everyone’s life is thrown out of whack as consequence. But the book is much more than that. There is the narrator, first of all. Who is it? During my first read-through, I thought, “Well, no brainer there. Third person.” But of course, that isn’t quite the case. In the third and final part of the book, the narrator reveals itself. Everything that I’ve read, it turns out, is all through the perspective of that single character, and colored by their very blatant agenda (hence the book’s title). So what did I just read? Certainly not an objective story. An attempt to alter history? Yes. And no, because where is the distinction drawn between the character-author and McEwan as the “ultimate” author? Is there supposed to be a distinction? Does this even make sense? Am I just thinking too much (again)?

Case in point—we have here Robbie, who ponders to himself the possible motives that goaded Briony to do what she did:

She was shocked, and not only by a word. In her mind, he had betrayed her love by favoring her sister. Then, in the library, confirmation of the worst, at which point, the whole fantasy crashed. First, disappointment and despair, then a rising bitterness. Finally, an extraordinary opportunity in the dark, during the search for the twins, to avenge herself.

(Chapter ___)

Interesting theory, and plausible. However, to accept that would be to discount Briony’s explanation in Part I of the novel. Who is correct, Briony or Robbie? And what was the motive behind the narrator’s inclusion of this thought? Perhaps as a suggestion to the reader to not believe everything that young Briony thought in Part I. In which case, my brain just imploded because I can’t handle this sense of uncertainty, and now this clearly unreliable narrator.

Okay, now I’m rambling.

In conclusion, Atonement is pleasing as it is frustrating, a straightforward story as it is tangled. And yes, my next step is to watch the movie, because I hear it is a visual feast.

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