Atonement, by Ian McEwan. Anchor Books, 2001.
Some time ago, I happened to catch the end of the movie Atonement – it was haunting and a little distressing, but completely intriguing even in the small snippet that I saw. When I found Ian McEwan’s book on the gigantic list, I considered that a good omen and picked it up eagerly.
This is the story of an English family in the time before and during WWII, of a horrible and damaging mistake that there’s no room to correct and the events that follow from the error of someone who’s young and… well, I was going to say foolish, but maybe youth is her biggest actual problem.
I don’t know why I was surprised that Atonement is a literary novel. (Maybe something about reading a string of high-school romances? I sorta forgot there was such a thing as literature.) It took me a long time to get involved with the story, which is unusual for me. I was prepared to put it down after 100 pages, but Something Happened about 70 pages in, and I was hooked. McEwan handles the details of war beautifully; it’s appropriately horrifying without being desperately graphic. Other settings are similarly detailed and distinctive. I’m glad the story finally caught me, because the work itself – the actual arrangement of the words on the page – is so carefully done that it would have been a shame to miss it. (Can you tell I’m a little geeky about language?)
My take: I’d recommend this book to war buffs (though it is not an action book), readers of romances, and anyone who appreciates literary irony – but only if they have the stamina for careful reading. Atonement was a good read despite the slow start, finely crafted and thoroughly researched. I appreciate the way the loose ends are (not exactly) tied up at the novel’s conclusion – the inconclusiveness feels like an appropriate feature of the story rather than a cutesy author ploy. McEwan is such a master of his writing that the writing disappears, and only the story is left. I’ll look for more by this author.
Author’s website at ianmcewan.com.
A blog featuring all manner of McEwan news. Kind of interesting, if you really like this author. (Please note that the blog keeper’s identity is not clear. Publisher, I’m guessing, but who can tell?)