A national best seller. Winner of many awards. A major motion picture. Atonement is a literary novel by Ian McEwan, set in the 1930’s in England. It is about a young adolescent girl’s imagination and her older sister’s moment of flirtation with the son of a servant. My husband and I both read this book. The features which stood out the most to us were McEwan’s style and his portrayal of characters.
The style in Atonement at times had me checking my watch and at other times made my heart race. One might blame the plot for my reaction. The first half of Atonement focuses on the preparations of a play by a younger sister for her soon-returning brother, the divorce of parents faced by three visiting cousins, and the changing feelings for a childhood friend. My husband said that for the first 100 pages not much happened. Yet at the least two of those scenarios, that of marital conflict and sexual arousal, has been the entire subject of thoroughly enjoyable novels. So, in my mind, style is at least partly to blame for two reasons. First, if not much happened in those first 100 pages, it’s because McEwan choose to present mostly the internal thoughts of his multiple characters instead of showing them in action. Second, at times, scenes felt overwritten. I could well imagine McEwan being able to write a lengthy chapter about a father breaking a coffee cup. As for the remaining 200 pages, the pace became more pleasurable. My husband and I would both agree that one reason is a lot more happened. The love interest of the older sister went to war, while both the older and younger sister served as nurses. At the same time, I’ve read books about war where I found myself yawning, and so style deserves a lot of credit. Indeed, McEwan’s attention to detail really brought to life the trauma and brutality of war.
While my husband and I might have felt that his style didn’t always work, McEwan’s portrayal of character earned a lot of admiration. I’ve read a lot of novels where each alternating chapter flips back and forth between the two main characters. This results in an overly structured feeling, which I mostly dislike. In Atonement, perspectives sometimes switch within chapters. Other times, McEwan focuses on lead character for several chapters. As such, the decision of when to change viewpoints seems solely dependent on it worked for the sake of moving forward the plot. This results in a more organic feeling, and really worked for me. Now I must admit, I have read other novels too wherein viewpoints seemed to change on the flip of a coin. The problem with them, in contrast to Atonement, is that the switches often felt arbitrary. Or maybe the characters simply weren’t developed enough for me to see them as individuals, with the result that I often felt confused by who was speaking and when. That’s not an issue in Atonement, where I felt very early as if I could easily describe each of the characters to my husband.
For the past couple of years, my husband and I have tried to pick a book that we’ll both read and discuss. We use lists of best-sellers and award-winners to make our selection. Atonement’s plot is what initially appealed to us. While that actually turned out to be at times lackluster, there was still much we found to like about Atonement. As such, it gave us a couple of weeks of engaging reading, as well as lively discussion, which is exactly what we want from a book we pick to share.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?