I finished reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement last night. It’s the latest novel my bookgroup has chosen; we’ll discuss it next week (here’s the reading group guide, which I read after writing this entry).
I’m not sure what to make of it. The book had been well-reviewed by most critics and acquaintances alike, so I was surprised that I never became absorbed by the narrative or the writing, though I was engaged enough. I have to admit that much of the war-related portion of the book went over my head — my grasp of early WWII battle history is not strong. I think my strongest criticism is that the narrative was predictable; I could see where it was going at every turn and was never surprised. Perhaps this was intention on the author’s part, to create a sense of inevitability of consequent events once one pivotal event (which was also predictable) has taken place.
I’m trying to follow the advice to consider “what does this book have to say to me?” rather than “did I like this book?” The book, IMO, tackles with facility and depth some major themes, among them: the nature of atonement and of forgiveness (obviously); the seeming inevitability of events and of character’s actions; the strong pull and pervasiveness of complicity and the roles of scapegoating, force, coercion, and systems of authority in peace-making; the roles of guilt and blame in a life and in relationships; the nature of weakness and strength, of heroism and cowardice; the sometimes muddy line between illusion and truth; our exquisite vulnerability to, and management of, physical and emotional harm; the interplay of candy-coated romanticism and graphically brutal realism; the moment of movement from childhood to adulthood; and the differences of thought, opinion, and action created by individual points of view and perspectives.
Perhaps the most crucial idea McEwan explores is the discordance between what actually happens in the external world, if such a place exists, and how we interpret these events, internally; and how our interpretations — and not the events themselves — are what determine the course of our actions and therefore our lives and the lives of those with whom we come in contact.
Some excerpts that seemed particularly insightful to me:
“A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit. Another was a passion for secrets: in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by pushing against the grain of cleverly turned dovetail joint, and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook written in a code of her own invention. … Hidden drawers, lockable diaries, and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel.”
“All she wanted to do was work, then bathe and sleep until it was time to work again. But it was all useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial she has relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable.”
“The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella — and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.”
“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, in her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination, she has set the limits and the terms.”