I haven't done a book review in a while, and seeing as I just power-read my way through the last 150 pages of Atonement on Saturday, I figured now is as good a time as any to get back into it.
Atonement is one of those novels that has been on my to read list for ages. I've been an unwitting fan of Ian McEwan since I was in the fifth grade when I read his excellent kids book, The Daydreamer. Several years after that my mother recommended Atonement to me just after it was published, in 2003. However, I thought the synopsis sounded a little dark, so I never picked it up. Many years later, I did read McEwan's more recent book, Sweet Tooth, which I moderately enjoyed. The writing was excellent, but there was something a little off with the plotting, all of which made me even more resistant to reading McEwan's acknowledged masterpiece.
For whatever reason, I finally got over my hesitation and dove into Atonement this month, 13 years after it first entered my literary radar, and now I wish I had picked it up much sooner.
Let's get a few things out of the way. Yes, it is dark. Downright grim. In 1930's England, a little girl, Briony, incorrectly accuses a young man, Robbie, of raping her cousin, utterly ruining his promising life. To double the injury, Briony also manages to ruin everything for her sister, Cecilia, who'd only just realized she and Robbie were in love. None of that matters to the law of course, and Robbie is sent to prison and Cecilia left to wait for him.
Briony doesn't realize her mistake until several years later. Meanwhile, Robbie gets out of prison only by volunteering to join the army just as World War II is about to begin. What follows is a terrifying description of what it may have been like to retreat from France and evacuate at Dunkirk. McEwan also treats us to some pretty graphic storytelling about Briony's experience working as a nurse during the same wartime period.
As a work of historical fiction, I think Atonement is one of the best books I've ever read, probably because I have a morbid fascination with fictional descriptions of retreat. I live such a comfortable and predictable life, yet periodically through history (or even today in parts of the world) there have been events so horrible that the only recourse people have is to grab whatever they can carry and run for their lives. This is about as terrifying and disorienting an experience I can imagine. McEwan approaches these scenes with the novelist's sense for allowing discrete details to tell the story: limbs in trees; German airplanes attacking columns of fleeing civilians; the thirst when even water is a luxury.
Where I think Atonement fails is in its main character, Briony, whom we learn is also the narrator of the book (as in Sweet Tooth, McEwan has a soft spot for meta stories). Briony grows up, becomes a writer, and promises to confess her error in her last work of fiction. Meanwhile, she's celebrated and loved as a successful novelist, and because of some legal trip up, her final confessional will be published posthumously. No one will ever have to know her crime while she's still alive. That's convenient.
I found Briony's character unlikable and self-obsessed from the very beginning of the novel, and she never really improves. For all her claims of atonement, she never made any real attempt at it. If she'd really cared, she'd have consigned herself to the same fate of Robbie and Cecilia and thrown herself off a bridge. At the very least, she could have limited her life to penance, helping others as she had when she was a war nurse. Instead she gets to do exactly what she'd always wanted. Sometimes, I struggle with the idea that to be a writer is a selfish aim. The character of Briony certainly exemplifies that.
Anyway, to have an unlikable character is not a bad thing at all, but when you title a book "Atonement" and then do nothing of the sort, there's a stink of irony that doesn't sit right. On the other hand, maybe Atonement is a great book because clearly that bothers me enough to care.