Saturday, May 4, 2013

Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

*with spoilers!

I've recently learned about the Nazi Grudge Informer cases. If your wife is having an affair with another man, and wants to get rid of you the husband, all she has to do is testify that you said something insulting about the Fuhrer. If convicted, apparently, you'll receive a death penalty (banished to Siberia to starve and freeze, or some sort). The wife is probably jumping gleefully in her knickers guiltlessly.

Well, guiltless Briony Tallis is not. In this story, her 13-year old self's over-imaginative mind results in disaster -- disaster not just for her future self wherein she spends most of it atoning for her crime but more importantly, she ruined two other people's lives.

Due to her grave misunderstanding of Robbie's flirtations with her sister Cecilia (ie. the letter by Robbie: "In my dreams, I kiss your sweet wet cunt), she falsely accused him of sexually assaulting someone.

"Lush, detailed, vibrantly coloured and intense" I've never read any of McEwan's opus, thus, not privy to his "style" but the beginning was slow, languid and... hot. It was a lazy summer's day and it was an inevitability that my eyes were getting lazy too. If there was one thing which irked me was the pace. McEwan encompasses you in every minute detail, which can be a kiss of death. It was elegant and interesting in the beginning but the middle was excruciatingly slow. Much to my chagrin, the novel was terribly focused on details of World War II that I didn't give a flying arse about. It went unfortunately slow in places where I felt unnecessary. Pretentious, I would say.

"A love story, a war story, and a story about stories." However, I was impossibly floored with the third part where we hear from Briony's point of view as a nurse and also, the epilogue. It was grim, it was brutal and cruel. It was cold. I loathed the character whose narrative I loved. Some of the parts I read were some of the most beautiful things I have ever come across. Not in a Nabokov sort of fanciful and lyrical beauty, but in a way story telling is delivered as it should be. Poised and efficient.

How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? In the end, it was revealed (very surprisingly) that the entire account is written by Briony herself. Even after 64 years since that summer's day, at the verge of dementia, she is still unable to free herself from the shackles she locked herself in. The fact that she glosses over the deaths of Cee and Robbie shows how there is no atonement. Giving them an alternate ending is a way to appease herself, not so much a kindness. Or, is it?

In the end, like Briony, I was also left with the characteristic emptiness and a tinge of sadness.

Genre: Literary Fiction, War
Pages: 351 pages

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