Atonement by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan tends to be a polarizing author in literary fiction circles. I have friends who LOVE HIM (my sister and I are in that camp, for sure), friends who HATE HIM and despise his work, and friends who run hot-and-cold. If you’re not sure if you’ll like McEwan, Atonement is actually the perfect place to start, since it’s largely considered to be his finest work (and I certainly agree with that argument). It definitely lacks the macabre that characterized his early works. [sidenote: ask me about The Cement Garden sometime. ::shudder::]
Atonement is a story about a story. It’s about love and war and violence and perception. Above all, it is a novel about writing. Briony Tallis, our protagonist and one of our major characters, is a sensitive, highly imaginative thirteen-year-old girl who dreams of writing and producing plays. While vainly trying to get a production of her play going, Briony happens to spy something funny or odd happening between her older sister and their father’s protégé. She weaves a tragedy around their relationship, and it’s this perception that guides her to commit a crime that will change the family’s narrative forever.
I chose Atonement for my book club to read this month, and it definitely engendered vigorous and dynamic discussion. My friend A, a chaplain, talked about the theological implications of atonement, and whether or not that actually took place in the novel. The Chancellor, who loves literary modernism, discussed the writing style and how McEwan took a very modernist tone in the novel. I talked about the postmodern ending and how McEwan writes about writing in a way that is rather sly. The Chancellor mentioned at the end that he did not feel sympathy for Briony, that he felt she was asking for it and didn’t actually deserve the sympathy. And I agree with that. Briony is not a likeable character at all, nor is she supposed to be, in my opinion. I believe that McEwan creates her to be the narrator and then distances himself in the end to get us to question everything about the novel. I find it brilliant and enjoy it every time I read this novel. Your mileage may vary.