Monday, November 01, 2004

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I want to talk to you this morning about Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. It is quite fitting that this excellent novel begins with a quote from Jane Austin's Northanger Abby, since McEwan comes about as close as anyone I can think of to the emotionally and psychologically rich prose of Austin. I can't tell you how much it surprises me to say that, since one of the main reasons I so seldom read male authors is that I see a kind of emotional paucity in their writing. Not only does McEwan capture the rich emotional life of a family, he writes very convincingly through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl, Briony, and of her twenty year old sister Cecilia. Indeed, the novel opens with Briony's view of her extended family and her worries about the production of her just finished play, and I found myself immediately hoping that the entire novel would be written through her eyes. A wonderfully clever and perceptive child, but for this reader at least, an utterly convincing voice; I could hear her and picture her from the very first pages.

In the early pages it seemed this would simply be a story about family life, the intellectual and philosophical awakenings of a young intellectual, and her struggle both to remain a child and to be accepted into the adult world. And certainly that is a strand in the novel, but it turns out to be about so much more. We readers are introduced next to Cecila, the older sister, having just returned from a comparatively new women's version of Cambridge, still more finishing school than the more intellectually rich and profession-directed men's schools, but nevertheless a new-age woman-one who reads and thinks and wonders and smokes in public. Again, the moment I saw the world through Ceclia's eyes, I hoped that she would remain a pivotal character. The introduction to the mother, Emily, is also complex and seductive, and it is not until Robbie Turner is introduced that we get a male's-eye view of the household. Robbie is the son of a servant, but one who has been given special status from childhood, his education paid for by the family, and who is situated between two worlds, neither of which he can quite claim as his own.

The novel begins in England in 1935, and though in many ways it remains simply a kind of morality tale about the complex relations within this one family, it is also a story about the horrors of war. The lovely, sweet, innocent beginning of this book does not at all prepare the reader for either the horrible mistake that catapults the family into inflexible divisions nor for the intensely descriptive and awful scenes of a Europe at war. Book two opens with Robbie in the French countryside, both British and French troops on full and desperate retreat from the advancing German armies. The war scenes, so unlike the glorified and utterly fictionalized Hollywood versions of World War II, are as wrenching and difficult to plow through as any descriptions of war I can remember. McEwan captures the chaos and absurdity of war, the stench and filth, blood and guts of it in a way that I think we very much need to see right now as so many suffer from an even more absurd war waged for so much less good cause. It was as hard to turn the pages, to keep reading this part of the novel, as it was delightful to read Book I, and if McEwan succeeds in giving a women's eye view of the world in his introduction, he certainly succeeds in giving a man's-eye view in Book II.

What I have not even mentioned yet is the incident that weaves this tale together, connecting the thirteen year old Briony at its beginning with the seventy-something successful author at its end. And I'm not going to say much about it; you will have to discover the mystery for yourselves. Suffice it to say that McEwan understands very well how so much of what we call perception of the world is really simply seeing what we are prepared to see, what in some sense we want to see. And how one fairly simple miss-perception, one mostly unintentional falsehood, can alter the lives of so many so irrevocably. Existentialist writers are quick to remind us how our acts transcend us and that we are (in some deep sense) responsible for the unforeseen consequences as for the foreseen. Good intentions are not the same as good acts, and apparently simply mistakes, simple misrepresentations, can have horrific consequences. Briony spends a lifetime living with the consequences of one well-intentioned miss-seeing, one that breaks apart a family and sets in motion a series of events all of which so completely transcend the moment.

But instead of revealing anymore to you potential readers, let me quote just one passage from early in the book, one that captures so much about the awakening of self, about the power of imagination, and about transitioning from child to adult, indeed, one that describes in such a lovely way the birth of a philosopher. Briony has just abandoned her role as playwright, given up on the her hopeless cousins as actors and taken out her frustrations by beating down nettles with a stick-the nettles representing all those around her who have frustrated her ambitions, her grand plans, each nettle representing some flesh-and-blood figure, and only slowly does she return to the real world.
She was becoming a solitary girl swiping nettles with a stick, and at last she stopped and tossed it toward the trees and looked around her.

The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse. Her reverie, once rich in plausible details, had become a passing silliness before the hard mass of the actual. It was difficult to come back. Come back, her sister used to whisper when she woke her from a bad dream. Briony had lost her godly power of creation, but it was only at this moment of return that the loss became evident; part off a daydream's enticement was the illusion that she was helpless before its logic: forced by international rivalry to compete at the highest level among the world's finest and to accept the challenges that came with preeminence in her field-her field of nettle slashing-driven to push beyond her limits to assuage the roaring crowd, and to be the best, and, most importantly, unique. But of course, it had all been her-by her and about her-and now she was back in the world, not one she could make, but the one that had made her, and she felt herself shrinking under the early evening sky ... In a spirit of mutinous resistance, ... she decided she would stay there and wait until something significant happened to her. This was the challenge she was putting to existence-she would not stir, not for dinner, not even for her mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance.
I remember such heroic moments, such not so childish frustrations. I think McEwan will return you to your childhood, and he will also teach you the meaning of atonement.

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