Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Atonement - Ian McEwan

One girl's atonement for an innocent and life changing error in judgment due to an over-zealous imagination.

Words-wordy, Serious


Simple Language, Minimal Profanity.

Favorite Quote:
Only in a story could you enter different minds and show how they had an equal value.


Atonement is my first Ian McEwan read. So I really didn't know what to expect out of it. It was much more than the first part's family drama; the second part's after effects of war, and definitely much more than a young woman's atonement for her crime for almost 64 years.

The book starts with the gathering of the Tallis family at their country house in 1935. 12-year old Briony is the youngest in the household, preceded by her elder brother Leon and sister Cecilia. She is engrossed in preparing a play for Leon's homecoming, casting her cousins Lola and twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot and thus, proves to be a perfect object for Ian McEwan to show the oddities of a writer's mind. For example, on hearing about her cousins' parents' divorce, Briony muses - "She vaguely knew that divorce was an affliction, but she did not regard it as a proper subject, and gave it no thought. It was a mundane unraveling that could not be reversed, and therefore offered no opportunities to the storyteller; it belonged in the realm of disorder." In fact, through Briony, Ian McEwan admits that "Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character's weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have?"

Cecilia on the other hand, had recently returned from Cambridge and was busy sorting out her feelings for her childhood friend and university acquaintance, Robbie Turner. An encounter between them near the garden fountain makes them aware of the strong undercurrents running between them. While Cecilia is still too angry to think it through, Briony's singular thought, watching unobserved from her window, was the way of describing that incident in written form. "She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view", which, interestingly, is how the author has narrated the scene. Ian, (through Briony) believes that "Only in a story could you enter different minds and show how they had an equal value", thus effectively summing up the narrative style of atonement.

By the time Leon arrives in the Tallis house with his friend Paul Marshall, all the three main characters are facing internal conflicts, holding a promise of an explosive conclusion by the end of the night. We are not disappointed.

Robbie, for his part, pens down his feelings for Cecilia, but in his haste, passes on the wrong and much cruder version of the note to her through Briony. Briony, on reading it, decides that Cecilia was threatened and needs to be protected. Her overripe (and immature) imagination results in the commitment of a gross error in judgement, which has a long-lasting impact on everyone involved.

While Part one of the book, dramatic that it is, is set in the relatively calm atmosphere of the country house, the second part of the book is set in the world war II in 1940, a time when the British expeditionary force was retreating from France. Robbie had now joined the army and was leading his team towards the channel to escape to the United Kingdom. Through written and re-read letters from Cecilia, we learn that she had broken ties with her family and had become a nurse. After the eventful night, they had met three and a half years later, a day before Robbie had to report for duty. It is through one of these letters that we come to find that Briony had, surprisingly, taken up nurses' training and wanted to meet Cecilia. Cecilia is excited about the thought that Briony may want to recant and change her evidence. The possibility of that makes Cecilia very excited, and Robbie hopeful.
Walking through barren lands, with taunting corporals and looking our for air attacks, this hope is the only thing that seems to keep him determined to reach the channel. When they finally reach it, they face a sight that should have been obvious to them earlier: Thousands of soldiers spread across the beach, but no boat to take them back. The chapter ends with the soldiers waiting for the next boat to take them back to England.

Part three of the book shows the war's opposite side of the coin - The plight of the soldiers and of the doctors and nurses attending them in England. There is a subtle and noticeable change in narration to suit the situation. While the earlier chapter described the miseries of war in as crisp a manner as possible, this chapter builds on the shock and awe factor of the war. Briony is undergoing hers nurses' training under Sister Marjorie Drummond, of "menacing meagre smile and softening of manner that preceded her fury". Briony's busy rituals in the hospital and her constant run-ins with Sister are charted out in an amusing and at times, pitiable manner. Briony unsuccessfully carrying a stretcher was, for example, equally funny and horrifying. Briony then hears of the British army retreating from France, and hopes that Robbie had survived it. As fate would have it, the injured British army are sent to her hospital for treatment. McEwan makes us wince at every page and sentence with graphic descriptions of the war wounds and Briony steadily improving efforts at treating them.
We keep waiting for the moment when Briony would come face to face with an injured Robbie and nurse him back to health. As Briony herself imagines "she would dress his wounds withought knowing who he was, and with cotton-wool tenderly rub his face till his features emerged, and how he would turn to her in gratitude, realise who she was, and take her hand, and in silently squeezing it, forgive her".

After the horrors of the war patients, Briony goes on to meet Cecilia the next day . She finds Robbie there with her, and her relief in finding him safe and well is almost negated by her dread of confronting them both together for what she had come to say.

I will have to admit that while part II was interesting, even though it did nothing to the spine of story, part III was, to a large extent disappointing. The climax of the part, the confrontational scene between Briony, Cecilia and Robbie, fell short of expectations somewhere and became unrealistic. Cecilia, "murmuring" to Robbie to "come back", seemed to come straight out of a romantic novel.

It is the final part of the book which clinches it. Any complaints that we may have had in the first few parts of the book are answered and put in perspective here. To say more would spoil the impact this chapter had.

The brilliance of the narration is in getting multiple points of view across. For instance, during his idle times of retreat, Robbie wonders what could have led to Briony blaming him for a crime he did not commit. His memories take him back to an incident when Briony had innocently admitted she loved him, and he wondered if that had carried on through the years, and this was one way of avenging herself for his apparent betrayal. Later on, during Briony's narration we come to find that her love for Robbie was just a passing fad and she had forgotten about it as soon as she had confessed to him.

Another equally interesting idea was to include an editor's review for the story written till now. We can easily notice that the review comments have in fact been incorporated into the first part of the story, in a way explaining why the narrative style is the way it . For instance, the editor, through his letter, says, "Rather than dwell for quite so long on the perceptions of each of the three figures, would it not be possible to set them before us with greater economy", thus justifying the need for showing the perceptions of the three characters in more detail.

McEwan's biography helped in understanding certain characteristics of the story better. While I have read and reviewed this purely assuming that it is a drama, I understand now, that it should have been read as “drama set in World War II era”. So, instead of saying it is a woman’s atonement for 64 years, it should rather be, a woman’s atonement during world war for 64 years. The detailed descriptions of the retreat, which I found dragging at times, and the graphic descriptions of the injuries, which I found irrelevant, are what lifted the story from being characterised as “just a family drama”.

Needs time and patience, but should not be given a miss.


antbrain said...

Fantastic first review for a novel that doesn't deserve any lesser adulation! The novel's attention to details of the period setting and the characters were all mesmerising and as rightly put, any subversions in the latter half of the novel is "clinched" in the end. Glad that your survey took me on a pleasant recap of this beautiful book, thanks!!

Archana said...

Your praise means a lot to me, since I remember how much you didnt like the first review I had posted. This book was one of the best I have read, and am surprised that it is not as famous as it should have been.

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