Sunday, January 19, 2014

Atonement



I have been getting behind in my blog posting. I’m keeping up okay with the reading – I have 5 books completed and am close to finishing the 6th – but, as you can all see, I’ve only posted 3 blog posts. So I’ll be trying to focus a bit more on the posting in addition to the reading.

The good thing is, the books just seem to be getting better. I keep giving myself a mental pat on the back for my selection, because I would recommend 4 of the 5 books I’ve read so far, a good return. I even found myself moved to tears by this last 1001 Books to Read Before You Die book.

With that being said, the 4th book of Project 84 is:


Atonement

Atonement
by Ian McEwan

In an attempt at full disclosure, I have to come clean right away: Atonement was not an easy book to get through. You know how sometimes you pick up a novel and it feels like you’re just flying through it? You can’t wait to get home so you can read more of it? And when it’s over, you feel like the time flew by?

Atonement is not that book.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I thought this book was beautiful. The writing was top notch, the imagery was incredible, I cared about the characters. I mentioned it at the top of this post, but the last few lines of the novel actually moved me to tears. I found it touching, and compelling, and, above all, sad. But that does not mean it was an easy book to get through.

I want to start with the plot summary, and I’m going to be a bit liberal with my use of the spoiler cut. Keep in mind that I won’t be ruining the book for you if you read what’s under the cut – and most people know the basic plot from the movie that came out a few years ago – but I want to be cautious in case someone wants to go into it blind.

The book begins during summer vacation at the Tallis family’s estate. The only son, Leon, is coming home, and his younger sister, 13-year-old Briony, has written a play to herald in his return. She has elicited the help of her 3 cousins – 15-year-old Lola and her twin brothers – who are visiting while their parents go through a divorce.

Meanwhile, the novel switches perspective to Briony’s sister, Cecilia, who is engaging in a complicated courtship with the housekeeper’s son, Robbie. After reading a letter not intended for her eyes, Briony decides that Robbie is dangerous for her sister, and that she must look out for Cecilia.

Spoiler
After witnessing an intimate encounter and believing that her sister was “attacked”, Briony tells the family that Robbie had sexually molested her cousin, Lola.

The rest of the book takes place in the aftermath of Briony’s confession. It takes us to war with Robbie, to the hospital where Briony is training to be a nurse, and all the way to Briony’s old age. As expected, the theme of the novel is Briony’s “atonement” – knowing the horrible thing she did, and working to make it right.

The plot of this book is interesting and compelling, but I would argue that it’s not the plot itself that makes Atonement intriguing. The real content of the book centers around an entirely different idea than atonement: rather, it is what McEwan has to say about perception.

It starts early, before the incident itself, with Robbie suddenly discovering that he is seeing Cecilia differently:

“Robbie stared at the woman, the girl he had always known, thinking the change was entirely in himself, and was as fundamental, as fundamentally biological, as birth.”

Later, when Robbie is trying to reconcile why Briony did what she did, he hearkens back to a time years ago, when Briony confessed to a crush she had on him. He has decided in his head that this must be why she lied – because she was jealous of her sister, jealous that she had what Briony wanted.

But an older Briony has a very different memory of the “crush” he believes has led to so much of his pain. She says:

“He was startlingly handsome, and there came back to her from years ago, when she was ten or eleven, the memory of a passion she’d had for him, a real crush that had lasted days. Then she confessed it to him one morning in the garden and immediately forgot about it.”

See? It’s all about perception. It’s all about how we reconcile an event in our minds. Is it true? Does it matter if it’s true? All of those are questions posed to the reader, and questions that you can’t help but consider.

Spoiler
Briony lies about seeing Lola's attacker, and identifying him as Robbie, because she has convinced her 13-year-old mind that Robbie is not good for her sister. It is her perception that destroys two – arguably three – lives.

It is through these differing perceptions, these no doubt unreliable narrators, that I become most connected to the book. Are the characters always realistic? No, not really. But that idea that our perceptions color reality – in fact, our perceptions form our reality – and that other people can be affected by those perceptions is very realistic. It’s a way to look at the world that I find not only compelling, but worthy of further consideration.

I feel about these characters. I feel real emotion while reading. When she makes up her story, I’m so angry at Briony. I’m so angry at her. I feel terribly for Robbie. He saves those little boys, and then his life is ruined. I might actually hate Briony, but also feel badly for her. Like her decisions were the best she could do.

I cried at the end, and I was shocked. I knew I felt for this book, I knew it evoked emotion – but there’s something so sad about this story. It’s beyond a sense of “I want this to end differently”. In fact, I think there’s a real beauty in the way the book ends. I want the events to be different. I want it to not have happened. But it did. And that’s so real for me.

Atonement was not easy to read. It slows in the middle, and some of the detail can be hard to get through. That being said, I enjoyed the book. Hell, I cried at the end – so it had a clear emotional effect. If you have a little time to invest to a really great book, I would recommend Atonement.

***

I have already finished Book 5, so I’m hoping to get the review up within the next couple of days. Even though it’s taking me a little longer than expected to post the entries, I’m enjoying Project 84 so far. It’s kept me reading, and I’ve already finished 5 books that I’ve been “meaning to read” forever.

Next Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (Expected posting date: Tuesday, January 21st)


**All annotations refer to this version of Atonement, published by Random House in 2003**

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