Saturday, November 26, 2016
Reader's Diary #1415: Ian McEwan: Atonement
I knew I was in trouble when it opened with a quote from Jane Austen. Finding old British literature rather stuffy, especially Austen, it was not a good sign.
For the few remaining people who have not read Atonement or seen the movie, the story involves a couple of sisters, Briony and Cecilia Tallis, and their childhood friend Robbie. Briony is increasingly becoming shocked at the actions of Robbie towards her older sister Cecilia, not understanding that they are on the brink of a new, sexual relationship. When a rape happens nearby, Briony convinces herself and others that Robbie is the culprit and many lives spiral downward as a result.
Being set in the 30s and involving an upper class British family is essential to the story as it would be much more implausible or at least much less likely in today's society. I started to wonder if perhaps McEwan was making such a point, that just as Briony needed to atone for her sins, so must society for having created such a culture of secrecy and rigid norms that would allow such tragedies to happen. But if that was the case, McEwan struck me as the type of father who, upon catching his teenage son smoking, would force him to smoke an entire pack in order to become sick and learn the lesson the hard way. The first third of Atonement is in itself stuffy. The Tallis family is pretentious and unlikable. Worst of all, the plot plods along so painfully slowly.
Not that I think McEwan is a bad writer and in fact, take any page and you can find some gorgeous passages. It's such passages that allowed me to continue. Still, as a complete package Atonement was a tedious chore.