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?