Friday, September 06, 2013

Atonement

We watched the movie, Atonement, two or three years ago, but I'd never read the book.  I thought the movie was very well done, and its surprise ending came as quite a shock. Don't read this next bit if you haven't seen the movie or read the book: it'll spoil it. But it turns out that the book we've been reading is, to all intents and purposes, the creation of one of the characters within the story; at the end she not only reveals this but also tells us how she changed the events to make them more palatable to the reader, and also to atone for her behaviour as a 13-year-old, when she all but destroyed the lives of her sister and her sister's lover.

While we were in Auckland, I discovered the book of Atonement on our friend's shelf, and began to read it, bringing it home with me to finish.  Knowing how the story played out and how it ended perhaps spoiled it to a degree for me, but the book was still well worth reading. Ian McEwan writes so wonderfully throughout that you turn page after page even after the main story has ended - about two-thirds of the way through - and the three kind of follow-up episodes take place. Structurally, you might say that the first two-thirds of the book is strongly plotted and the other three sections are quite discursive, although the last section ties up some loose ends. The long sequence when Robbie is heading towards Dunkirk with two other soldiers is gripping only because of the detail; there's little forward movement, in a sense. Briony's story of being a probationer-nurse is equally enthralling, but again, until the very end, doesn't move things forward much, except to give us a hint that what we're reading may be not quite what we think it is.  Briony gets the last word, in the last section, where she reveals what the book has been about. By this time a number of the characters have died (either of old age, or accident) and the party for Briony's birthday includes the long-lost play that she wrote as a child, and which was to have been performed on the fateful day that takes up so much of the first part of the book.

The first part of the book is impressionistic, full of wonderful portrayed detail, superbly delineated characterisations, and much more. Yet in spite of its impressionistic feel, this is where the nitty-gritty of the novel takes place.  There is much more grit and graphic detail in section two and three, but in the end they don't seem to add much to the story, although they create a dark and fearsome world where people are dying horrible deaths as a result of the War.  It's interesting that though the Dunkirk sequence was given quite a bit of room in the movie, Briony's time as a trainee nurse was reduced considerably, and the last sequence, in which - as an old woman - she reveals what truly went on, is given only a few minutes of screen time, but more than enough to bring the movie to a satisfactory conclusion.  Dramatically, the movie makes a very good fist of the book.  Its only indulgence is the long tracking shot of the beach near Dunkirk, an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, but not actually relevant to the story.

I've never read any of McEwan before, and since this book is touted as his masterpiece, I'm not sure what I'd read else that wouldn't come across as a lesser book.  No doubt there are excellent things in his other books...time will tell.
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