Monday, November 23, 2009

A is for...

Atonement by Ian McEwan. (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)


I'm shocked at myself, that this didn't pop into my head after first ponder of the "A" challenge. Atonement is one of my absolute, all-time favorite books, yet it didn't come to mind as a response to the Alphabet Challenge until I saw it on my shelf tonight. I think this is because Atonement doesn't fall neatly into my categorization of historical fiction, in two ways. One, it is also literary fiction. Literary on a level that meshes beautifully with the historical setting (one might even say becomes a part of it), but still not strictly, solely a historical. Second, for part four, which does take place in the present.

Regardless: In short, Atonement is the story of coming of age during WWII, learning the ramifications of the consequences of one's actions. Part one jumps from perspective to perspective, slowly fleshing out the story of what happened one day and one night at the Tallis family house in the late 1930s. Somehow, McEwan makes over a hundred pages of the same day completely engrossing. Part two focuses on the experiences of Robbie, the love interest of the older Tallis sister, as he struggles across the French countryside to reach the evacuation point known to history as Dunkirk. Part three shadows Briony, the younger Tallis sister, as she trains as a nurse, is tested in the days following Dunkirk, and decides to face the past and the unintended consequences of her actions (a rather fitting theme, given the time period--who wasn't thinking of how long the echoes of a single action could sound with WWII coming to a breathtaking climax?). And then part four turns the whole story on its end, effectively examining how we create stories, how we tell them, and why.

This might be one reason I like the book so much--at its core, it's a story about stories, and how sometimes the story is more impactful than the truth. Fascinating...

On a personal level, Atonement serves as one of the texts I study when it comes to my own writing. Not in terms of imitation (I coudn't) or in concept (clearly, this one can only be done once), but more in the way a novice watches a magician turn a scarf into a bird--"How did he DO that?" And so I find myself rereading paragraphs over themselves, and opening to a random page and drinking in the language, for the joy of it.

This was also one of those in which the movie managed to capture a good deal of the essence of the book, particularly by repeating the same scenes from different perspectives and timings and with the haunting score, heavy on the typewriter keys. Of course, Keira Knightley was nothing as I imagined Cecilia to be (McEwan calls her horsey--erm, yes, well, casting had a different interpretation of that one). Strange, too, how the film painted it as a love story, when I found the novel to have an entirely different flavor (though still with the bittersweet of a love story tucked in there, too).

4 comments:

Carrie said...

Great review! Do you think it's worth reading the book if I've already seen the movie? (Which was pretty disappointing, I thought. But I think it was the movie, not the story.) You certainly make the writing sound amazing!

Cat said...

Your review makes me want to read the book. I've never bothered up to now because I saw the movie but sounds as it would be worthwhile.

Rowenna said...

Hi--thanks for reading! I would pick up the book and read a page or two--if you like the writing, it's definitely worth reading (even if you know the ending from the movie). If it's not your cup of tea, take what you like--or don't--from the film, because it held to the story and the themes pretty well. By the way, I haven't liked other things McEwan has written, for what it's worth--so if you liked or disliked other books of his, you might have a different opinion on Atonement. Thanks again!

Marg said...

I liked this book when I read it a while ago. I think that watching the movie after reading the book enhanced my enjoyment, although I did have to go back and read the end of the book again because I just didn't see the twist as clearly!

Good choice for the letter A! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with for the next letters!