Friday, February 01, 2008

Atoning for Not Reading Atonement Earlier

I feel shamefaced that it's taken me so long to read Ian McEwan's Atonement. As I said earlier, I was halfway through it when I was asked to review or proofread something else. I put it aside. Other books interposed themselves (as books are wont to do). It went back onto the bookshelf, surrounded by other books I know I will love, but haven't had the time to open.

This is one instance when being a member of a book club really helps. My friends chose it as the January read - no doubt nudged by the release of the film which some of them have seen.

Atonement is now my favourite of McEwan's novels (a position previous held by On Chesil Beach, A Child in Time and the first terrible chapter of Enduring Love):

It's breathtakingly good, so beautifully written and carefully detailed that you are drawn right in ... to a large English house on a stiflingly hot summer's day, to the war ravaged landscape of France as an army retreats to Dunkirk, to a London hospital swamped by the war-wounded in the aftermath.

As so often in McEwan's novels, something completely unthinkable happens and destroys the lives of all involved.

Here the testimony of a thirteen year old girl, Briony Tallis, sends an innocent man to gaol for a rape (or molestation) that he did not commit. Was it simply a misunderstanding from which Briony found it impossible to withdraw once events were set in motion? Was she the victim of her own over-dramatic imagination? Was she simply jealous of the sexual passion that had been ignited between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie?

Whatever the truth, Robbie's lower social status weighs against him. He is the son of the housekeeper, hitherto treated as a member of the family, and Mr. Tallis has even paid for this education at Cambridge and is willing to finance his further studies in medicine. But that relationship seems now to carry no weight. He is sentenced while the true perpetrator of the crime is not even suspected, although all the clues are there.

Cecilia pledges her love as her man is led away, but really can there be a happy ending for the two? And can Briony ever really atone for the harm she has caused?

One of the biggest delights of the book for me was the post-modern twist towards the end which has the reading flicking back to re-evaluate the story in the light of new evidence.

I shall give no more than that away, even though I'm dying to. (And no spoilers from you lot either!). It's enough to say that I found the book moving and unputdownable and surprising.

Back in 2001 I remember banging on to whoever would listen about how glad I was that Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang won the Booker that year. Now, while that book still remains a firm favourite, I'm forced to reconsider!

I love to know where novels I love came from. McEwan explains in an interview on the Barnes & Noble website how the novel was born from a single arresting image (arrived at after 15 months of false starts!) that of:
... this girl stepping into the room with a bunch of wildflowers. The room has a certain kind of elegance, there's a young man outside she wants to see -- but doesn't want to see -- and there is a vase that she is looking for on a low table by a french window. And I don't know why, really, and I certainly didn't know why at the time, but I thought, This is a toehold for me. This is the beginning of whatever it is I'm going to write.
He had set out with the vague ambition he says of writing a love story:
I had this thought as to whether it was possible, at the end of the 20th century, for the literary novel to explore the subject of love in quite the way it was automatically a subject in the 19th century. I mean, have we wrapped ourselves in so much irony and self-reference that we can no longer simply tell a love story?
And he drew on Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey in which
... a young woman's reading of gothic novels causes her to misunderstand everything around her. And I've often thought that I would rather like someone with imagination to cause some sort of havoc.
For me there were echoes of several other novels, though I've no idea whether they influenced this one - most especially L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (country house, class distinctions, adults sexuality and a child misunderstanding things, a child carrying letters) and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (a false accusation of rape, a changed testimony).

Those in our book club who have seen the film rate it very highly indeed, and here's the trailer which I also think gives the flavour of the book.

Anyway, it's been an awful long time since I asked you, but what are you reading at the moment and what have you been reading?


Rob Spence said...

I agree about this novel - beautifully structured, clever, gripping, original. The film is already out here on DVD, before it wins its Oscars, as it probably will. I can't see how the film can replicate the complexity of the book though.

enar arshad said...

Sharon, mph is so far away or i would have go there now and buy the book after reading your next trip to kl is so far away.sigh!

bibliobibuli said...

rob - it really doesn't get better than this, does it? there is so much more i want to write about the book here but it really is a book one could spoil by giving the game away. (but did you get that really clever bit about the colonel pointing out errors in the manuscript??? no-one else in my book club did haha)

enar - you could buy by post from mph or acmamall ... or i could lend you my copy by post if you email me your address - can't bear to think of you without this book!

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

watch the long sequence of the beach at Dunkirk and you will understand how the book was adapted for film.

for me, the real point of interest of the story is its self-reflexive nature. Atonement is really about both the destructive and healing powers of fiction, and how all fiction is a lie. it's almost a cautionary tale for writers.

bibliobibuli said...

exactly right, Guo and very nicely said. am looking forward to seeing the film. ooops another one i missed because blink and it is out of the cinemas again.

Anonymous said...

It is one of my all-time favourite novels, as is The Go-Between. I am always drawn to novels in which children do bad things they can never undo :-) . For me that was the main attraction of The God of Small Things, and I also loved The Story of Lucy Gault (William Trever) and Michael Frayn's Spies -- which, by the way, Kak Teh and Awang Goneng recommended to me -- for that same reason.

The ending of Atonement is just flat-out stunning -- I practically fell out of my chair and cried for days when I first read it, and STILL rereading it makes me cry -- but there are people who hate it. I think that's the mark of a great book, in some ways -- people either love it or hate it. The film is beautiful -- you must find a way to see it!

But between this and The True History of the Kelly Gang, I mean, really, what an impossible choice! The judges must've been in despair. I would've just had to flip a coin, they are both that good.

In answer to your question about what we're reading, I'm actually trying to read everything Peter Carey has written. I've now gone back to his first novel, Bliss, which I'd never read. The man is such a master of character sketches!

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

TrevOr, not Trever.

-- PS

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

the first half of the film and the second half look like they were directed by different people. i didn't like the first half, and thought it was typical English period chamber drama. it was only the second half that the film started to develop a real atmosphere and mood.

bibliobibuli said...

Preeta - love all the books you mention ... and yes, it is a climax that makes you fall out of your chair, but not at all in the way you expect it might.

peter carey is my darling and another author who would make me melt into a puddle if i met him. i've loved everything i've read except "my life as a fake" because i was so annoyed at how much he got wrong about malaysia. i've read everything (i think) since "illywacker". but like you i've got to go back to earlier stuff. i seem to discover authors suddenly and move forward with them as they write new stuff, but never get round to reading the stuff they wrote before that. it's the same with atwood.

it must have been a heartbreaking decision to make re the 2001 booker winner. it was a vintage year!

(mind you i think everyone agrees that mcewan got the booker earlier for the wrong book, "amsterdam")

i became a mcewan fan with his first book of short stories "between the sheets" and his novel about kids who bury a body in the cellar "the cement garden". but that was quite a few decades ago and i need to reread ...

guo - have you read the book as well? the book actually differs from one section to another even in the way the chapters are laid out, which make it looks as if they were written by different people or at different times ... which is part of what mcewan is trying to do in fact.

it was interesting when we discussed the book the other night, some people liked one part much more than the other ...

wunderkind said...

I'm wunderkind from Librarything and, as per your suggestion, I went straight off to check out your blog and definitely agree with you on "Atonement". I read it right before I heard that it was being made into a movie, and at first had a problem with James McAvoy not being tall enough to play Robbie (a silly complaint, but there you go), but the movie really was very well made. The thing is, I feel like once you've read the book, the movie doesn't have a lot to offer: it's very loyal to the tone and story and some scenes are reproduced almost exactly like I pictured them when reading the novel, but the book is just so much more expansive, as books tend to be. A lot of the scenes in the book that had the biggest emotional impact for me (France, a lot of the bits in the hospital, and the last meeting between the three) didn't really affect me when I saw them on screen. Especially the part where Robbie gets to the beach: McEwan describes it so well that I got shivers, whereas in the movie I just thought "Well, that was a nice tracking shot." Still, as far as movies born from books go, it's very good; if it pales a little in comparison to the original source, that's due to the greatness of the book rather than to the shortcomings of the filmmakers.

bibliobibuli said...

preeta - (in case we ever find ourself judging the booker) we could award two first prizes!

wunderkind - thanks so much for dropping by! i'm glad i've read the book before seeing the film ...

if it pales a little in comparison to the original source, that's due to the greatness of the book rather than to the shortcomings of the filmmakers.

that's a nice way for things to be actually ... and not many films better the books they are based on actually, which is yet another reason why reading is special

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

i can think of two films that are way better than the source novels:

The Godfather

The Bridges Of Madison County

there are definitely more, but i'm too lazy to think.

and i respectfully beg to differ. the Dunkirk beach scene (not a tracking shot, btw, but a Steadicam one) sent shivers down my spine and almost drove me to tears because it was so moving and melancholy. it wasn't just an impressive one-take but the build-up, the marriage of music and visuals, the entire breathtaking sweep encompasses all the heartbreak, sadness, longing, senselessness (shooting horses), and grasping at the unattainable in a time of war. simply beautiful. the only other time a scene had the same effect was in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, when the soldiers stormed the Japanese camp. that one hits the emotional button no matter how many times i watch it.

bibliobibuli said...

arrgggh ... how do they do the shooting of horses bit in the film? that upset me no end in the book. (authors should write a disclaimer, no animals were injured in the writing of this novel).

animah said...

Im back in a Nabokov phase. Reading Invitation to A Beheading. In preparation for our next great book, Lolita. Although I much prefer Ada or Ardour to Lolita.

I find the comment about atonement through fiction fascinating.

Roxanne said...

I like novels about atonement for the reason that I've skeletons in my closet too. No, I've not murdered anyone (yet) but I should have been kinder to certain people in my life. I finished Hosseini's The Kite Runner last night, and I'll be seeing the film with doc tomorrow. I like this better than A thousand Splendid Suns but then I've this belief that first novels are always better ...

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

oh, forgot that you asked wat we're reading.

i'm reading The Anubis Gates. it's a time-travel classic and one crazy-ass novel! real page-turner. i don't know how anyone can write like that with such a gusto plot that builds and builds.

it's got Coleridge, Lord Byron, a killer clown on stilts, crazy gypsies, science, Egyptian black magic, and ... get this ... a werewolf.

now, doesn't that make you wana read it?

Anonymous said...

Atonement through the book club is my first introduction to Ian McEwan, and what a pleasure he has been to read. Such a beautiful book, now I want to read more of his work.
The movie of course was mostly loyal to the book, but you can rarely have a movie that reaches the hights a winner book like this can, can you? But the movie was a very good attempt and I enjoyed it.
Here's to more good readings in the year ahead.

bibliobibuli said...

guo - yeah, it does, actually

uma - isn't it just so great when you discover a new author through the bookclub?

savante said...

I loved the novel despite it's tragic end. God, why must serious literary novels always have a.... disastrous chapter right at the end.

I know it's simplistic of me but I just wish for once they'd give me the happy ending!

GUO SHAO-HUA said...


i believe that's a spoiler.

bibliobibuli said...

it's okay because really you can choose your ending.

bex said...

Hey, is that what the cover of your book looks like? I thought mine was beautiful but yours is even better! :)

"Atonement is really about both the destructive and healing powers of fiction, and how all fiction is a lie."

I think I get what you're trying to say but can fiction really be called a "lie" since its name itself implies that it is something that is "invented"? In fact, I think fiction is always defined as something that is produced, at least, in part, by the imagination, so how can we say that a piece of fiction is a "truth" or a "lie"?

I do agree with you on the "destructive and healing powers of fiction" though. :)

GUO SHAO-HUA said...

sometimes there is "truth" in fiction. no?

bibliobibuli said...

bex - this one is not my cover but i like this better

this book has layers of fiction, layers to truth.

and yes, there is truth in fiction, of course there is.

bex said...

Okay, I think there must always be some truth in a piece of fiction, but it doesn't make the entire thing either a truth or a lie, does it? Sorry for deconstructing this, but I think fiction writers are capable of turning this truth into "twisted/distorted truth" or expand it until it becomes a "non-truth", "lie" seems a bit too strong for me, although I don't doubt that some writers might take a "truth" and transform it into a "lie", which they then base their novel on.

I just feel like if we call a piece of fiction "truth", then it makes it non-fiction, doesn't it? [Unless you mean truth in the ideas, truth in the emotions, expressions, etc.] Something that we perceive to be a lie could be just as real, or equivalent to the "truth", in the creator's mind. And I think fictionalised versions of true events can sometimes be very fascinating, but I don't think that it necessarily makes everything in it a lie. Even in memoirs or autobiographies, it is possible for one to manipulate the "truth" so that you never really get a truth that is objective or balanced, only something that is true to the person who's writing it.

I guess my point is just that it is sometimes a "non-truth" to say that all fiction is this or that. Or maybe Lit has stopped me from having a proper opinion because I keep thinking about all the "grey areas" and gaps between what is black and white!