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Thread: Atonement by Ian McEwan

  1. #1
    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Atonement by Ian McEwan

    Atonement by Ian McEwan:
    A Review by PB

    I can sail around the continent-sized revelation at the end of Ian McEwan's Atonement, although my task is made no easier by the subtly different endings of the book and film versions. This bears discussion, but the spoiler factor consigns me to a certain inevitable murkiness. I'll sound the foghorn if there's anything you really shouldn't see.

    On its surface, Atonement is about a 13-year-old girl who accuses an innocent man of a heinous crime. Briony, the accuser, is creative in a girlish sort of way. She loves to write romantic tales of desperate heroines and gallant princes defeating dastardly villains and getting married (though she is a little confused about what happens after that). She draws illustrations and paints covers for her stories. She binds them with string and keeps them in the family library. Her life is sheltered (it's 1935 and she lives on an estate in rural England), but she is on the whole a likable girl. Her experiments with literary diction ("This is the tale of spontaneous Arabella") are priceless.

    Briony's accusation is also a fiction, but the crime, which she witnessed outdoors one moonless night, is all too real. She convinces herself that she recognized Robbie, a surrogate family member (whom she distrusts for complicated reasons), committing the act when what she means is that in her heart she knew it could only have been him. But she tells the adult world that she actually saw him doing it. And so, instead of going to Oxford to study medicine, Robbie goes to prison for child rape. His lover Cecilia, Briony's elder sister, remains loyal to him at the cost of estrangement from her wealthy and powerful family.

    These events are in effect the novel's premise (although they take its first half in the telling). The next section takes place five years later on the blasted and hellish road to Dunkirk. Robbie has been granted early release in return for service at bottom rank in the devastated British Expeditionary Force. Briony's fib can be said to have placed him here, too, for in his old life's trajectory he would have been an officer and a physician--probably based in a London hospital awaiting the wounded. Predictably, the war allows McEwan to display his considerable skills at grisly realism. The horror and carnage of the British rout is placed in stark contrast to the romantic fantasies (Briony's) that landed Robbie in this hell.

    But unpredictably--and rather brilliantly--McEwan introduces a modicum of comic relief through two fellow stragglers, Corporals Mace and Nettle, who become Robbie's mates on the terrible journey to Dunkirk. The men both outrank him, but they treat Robbie as their officer because his education allows him to read maps and use a compass well. He needs them (at first) because he has lost his rifle and they still have theirs. Once they reach the main column, Robbie resolves to lose the pair, but they keep up with him--all the way to the beaches. Mace and Nettle could easily have been stock characters. Instead they are among McEewan's most memorable creations.

    The book's third part is set in London just after Dunkirk and a few months before the Blitz. Briony, now 18, is also experiencing a baptism in realism. Rather than studying literature at Cambridge (as was expected of her), she has become a student nurse--ostensibly "to do something practical" but really in an act of self-punishment. As an adult, she is fully aware of what she has done to Robbie and her sister.

    And punishment she gets. McEwan's images of the wounded are unsparing --men without skin, men without faces, men with exposed brains who only want to hold a woman's hand as they short circuit to death. There is much in this part of the novel about how Briony goes about seeking atonement. That I will leave to readers.

    The novel ends with an postscript/epilogue set in 1999. This presents the spoiler problem I mentioned above. I can foxtrot around the denouement, but those who don't want to know any more should leave now.

    The postscript is narrated in the first person by an elderly Briony--now a famous writer. It reveals that the entire preceding work (a third person narrative) was her latest novel, one based closely on facts from her life. In the movie's ending (which I have seen only on YouTube), Briony confesses that several major plot developments did not really happen, and that she also suppressed crucial facts (these are specified but I won't repeat them). Events, she says took a far more pessimistic course. She changed the truth as a tribute to her sister and Robbie--her final act of atonement.

    NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! Or well, I mean yes, in a way. Some of that is from the postscript. The crucial difference is that in the novel, Briony (an increasingly transparent mask for McEwan), leaves the matter ambiguous. In a way, it's for the reader to decide which ending to accept--but in a way it's not. Of course the more pessimistic version is the correct one. It's the more realistic version--the true one. Except that it's not. And that's McEwan's sucker punch.

    Neither is true. There never was a Briony. The whole thing is a fiction. And that's a sucker punch because look at how McEwan's been playing you. First there's 13-year old Briony, whose girlish romanticism masks a truly dangerous narcissism. Boo romanticism! Then there's the shocking but moving realism of Robbie at Dunkirk and Briony in the war hospital. Yay realism! Then, in the third part, an acceptable synthesis emerges in Briony's search for atonement. It's not the most memorable ending in literature, but it is realistic and moving in it's own way.

    But then Briony/McEwan says (metafictionally): "Oh, but maybe the story really ended this way--you'd be okay with that right?"

    "Well no," is our gut response. "We were actually pretty comfortable with the other ending."

    "But the new one is more realistic, wouldn't you say?"

    "Well, yes, and it's not that we don't appreciate your little metafictional games, but as readers we will simply opt for the ending we like best."

    "Because..."

    "Go away."

    "You're..."

    "GO AWAY!"

    "Romantic too."

    Heh heh. And it's not as if McEwan, famous for his realism, attempts to exempt himself. He has the elderly Briony explain for both of them: "I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism." His point, of course, and the point of the entire novel, is that realism and romanticism are an unstable isotope. In the end, it is a personally mixed cocktail capable of bringing harm or comfort. But (to take the metaphor a step further) you have to know when to say when.

    But the movie version forgoes all this by insisting (for reasons of pathos) that the pessimistic ending is the only one possible. And since more people have seen the movie than read the book, it is often taken to be the novel's ending, too (the Wikipedia entry for the novel, for example, makes this mistake). And, hey, if you already know the ending (many tell themselves), why bother with the book? Moral: novels first, movies second. And Wikipedia to be generally avoided.

    I would recommend Atonement to any adult who enjoys literature and likes to think more than to be told. Please note that I have not critiqued the novel's flaws. That is because I didn't notice any. It is virtually flawless.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 06-04-2018 at 07:21 AM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

  2. #2
    TheFairyDogMother kiz_paws's Avatar
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    I loved this book review.
    I, too, read the book, after seeing the film. My reason was that a film does not always enable one to 'get inside the head' of the players in the play.
    This book review is completely awesome.
    My recommendation -- read the book. You'll be glad that you did.
    Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty
    ~Albert Einstein

  3. #3
    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Thank you very much, Kiz. I always get many more views than comments on this forum, so I really appreciate hearing your take on the book. I know what you mean about getting inside characters' heads. In a certain way, it's not even fair of me to harp on the movie's ending. The film medium just doesn't have the psychological latitude that literature does. It's visual rather than "clairvoyant" (as McEwan says of writing). The movie version probably had to end the way it did. Which only goes to show that books are better.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 06-03-2018 at 08:03 AM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    TheFairyDogMother kiz_paws's Avatar
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    I so agree that "books are better"...
    Having read that book (which having seen the film I simply HAD to get into the heads of the characters, to understand the whole plot, etc.), I suppose that that movie ending simply had to be what it was.... Else, too complex?

    Anyways, to all reading this, go and read this book -- it is a great story indeed.
    Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty
    ~Albert Einstein

  5. #5
    TheFairyDogMother kiz_paws's Avatar
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    double post... what the heck...
    Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty
    ~Albert Einstein

  6. #6
    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Yes, complexity is part of it. Novels can be more psychologically complex than movies because it's easier for them to do interior monologues. Filmmakers are more bound to the visual and so to the physical. It's often hard to capture subtle nuances of thought in movies--they're better at achieving responses through manipulating physical images and icons.

    In the case of the film version of Atonement, it would have been a weak ending if one of the characters had turned up at the end to suggest that, hey, maybe the story went like that and maybe it didn't. So they ended strongly by choosing one ending and (please note) added short flashbacks showing the two most shocking images. Cinematically speaking, they did the right thing. But I prefer the literary ending because it is somewhat less sentimental (and so good in a book that documents the dangers of romanticism) and far more thought provoking. As I said above, Atonement is a great book for those who like to think more than to be told.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 06-03-2018 at 09:43 PM.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 11-28-2018 at 05:54 AM.
    ay up

  8. #8
    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    A good review, very helpful. McEwan draws you in (as expected) then kicks you out just when you've made your emotional commitment.

    I notice that often watching even a poorly adapted film of a book enhances the understanding of the book and opens up new avenues of thought. In this case I read the book with my book club but haven't seen the film. Many of the members had done both and seemed to have their ideas better marshaled and have stronger opinions. Those who hadn't were still trying to work out what was going on. It's that complexity thing I suppose - films cut through it- or ignore it -or is a better medium to explain it. At the time, I kept mumbling something about prepubescence in teenage girls.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 11-28-2018 at 05:56 AM.
    ay up

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