Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reader's Diary #1415: Ian McEwan: Atonement

Years ago I created a list called "glaring omissions" of all the books that everyone else seemed to have read by me. I stuck it up on the side bar of this blog and over time have whittled away at it, bringing the number down from 20 to 2. Ian McEwan's Atonement has been one of the hold outs for a couple of reasons. First off, I've since seen the film adaptation and regardless of how I feel about a movie, I'm much less likely to read a book after seeing it on the screen. I usually find it taints my perception, I find it hard not to envision the actors in the roles and so on. Secondly, I've since read Ian McEwan's Saturday. I enjoyed it but probably not enough to be inspired to seek out another novel by him, being more interested in familiarizing myself with other authors. But now that time has passed and both are becoming more distant memories, I've finally given in and knocked Atonement off the list.

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.

1 comment:

Loni said...

I had a feeling that this wouldn't be for me... I haven't seen the movie either. Though I do feel like an bad read for having never read anything by McEwan.