Sunday, January 27, 2008

Atonement (Ian McEwan)

I’d been meaning to read some McEwan for a while now, and the release of a movie version of Atonement coupled with the appearance of a 50-cent used copy at a local used-book store seemed as good an excuse as any. I haven’t seen the movie, but damn if this isn’t a great book.

Of its 350 pages, the first 175 are devoted to a single day at the Tallis household in 1935, in which a sequence of misunderstandings leads precocious, imaginative, and self-absorbed thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis to accuse her sister’s lover, Robbie Turner, of a crime he had nothing to do with, and convinces both herself and everyone else that Robbie was guilty. The second section follows Robbie, who who has since enlisted in the army in return for early release from prison, as he makes his way across France with two other men during the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940; the third shifts to an older Briony, working as a nurse in London, who as an adult has realized the enormity of the injustice she brought on Robbie and Cecilia.

That’s the outline of the plot, anyway, although trying to explain the book like that is a little like trying to explain the Grand Canyon by holding up a postcard. What makes Atonement so compelling is the depth and nuance of the characters’ internal lives, and the way even scenes in which nothing much outwardly happens offer McEwan a canvas to paint those interiors in rich detail. (I understand the movie is pretty good, but it’s difficult to imagine how the complex interplay of motivations, misconceptions, wrong ideas, and imagination that drive the novel could have possibly translated to the screen.) It’s by no means an upbeat book, but it is a tremendously satisfying and cathartic one, and I was more than a little sorry when it was over. So I guess I’ll have to keep my eyes out for Enduring Love, Amsterdam, and Saturday.

3 comments:

christie said...

Just recently finished Saturday myself. It is a most excellent read. The recollections a bit hazy since I just had my first kid and am operating on little sleep, but I believe Saturday is a novel that recounts the events of one day. Not so surprising, I guess, given the title. Anyway, enjoy. Have you read any Richard Russo?

christie said...

Sorry. "Recollections" should have had an apostrophe in there.

Jim Duncan said...

No, I haven't read any Russo, although I understand "Empire Falls" is terrific--I'll have to check him out too. I remember really liking the excerpt of "Saturday" in the New Yorker awhile back, so I'm definitely going to read that one. Glad to hear it's good. (I'd actually meant to read that first, but then up pops this copy of "Atonement," and there you go.)