Atonement by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

I remember buying this book years ago in National Bookstore. Years, yes. My copy of Atonement is old, probably from the first batch of trade paperback release. I didn't even have a blog, much less a book blog then! The reason I probably didn't read this then is because I needed the time to grow old and be floored by the story now.

Yes, it floored me. I never used that description before. It is a story that quietly builds up a crescendo, lulls you into a sense of comfort and then eventually pulls the rug from under you much, much later when you think you're safely ensconced in a pillowy softness of an almost-happily ever after. And I think I have to write this down now before I fall further into the depths of my disorientation and attempt to pick the pieces of myself in the process.

I already posted that I was deeply worried about Robbie and Cecilia earlier as well as my hate for Briony but that would make sense only to those who have read the book or have seen the film. I haven't seen the film yet which I heard from good sources a faithful adaptation of the book. Now I want to. Again, I digress.

In a nutshell: Briony Tallis, the thirteen-year old wannabe writer accuses Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises' cleaning lady, of assaulting her cousin Lola Quincey one summer night in 1935 while searching for the missing siblings of Lola in the garden of the Tallises' house in Surrey. Cecilia Tallis, Briony's older sister is in love with Robbie. The events prior and leading to the twins' disappearance is the heart of the accusation and the heart of the entire book. I wouldn't know how to put all that into words without sounding like I'm writing a case digest of a crime - all cold facts and none of the raw emotions involved - when in fact everything about the book speaks of how emotions affect the decisions we make and the paths we take as we live through trying circumstances.

The accusation is what Briony is atoning for in the story. Because it destroyed Robbie Turner's future, incarcerating him up to the time he volunteered for an early release to join the English campaign against the Germans in France.

Obviously I will not speak further of the story. But I will heap praises to Ian McEwan, with a scowling "How could you?" thrown in for good measure in between. Oops, sorry.

The writing is excellent. Using perspectives of the different characters of the book we get a sense of who they are, what they are like and where they are coming from. The difficulty (and genius of using this voice is that) we also see the bigger picture; so when things start happening a voice in your head starts screaming "This isn't happening" or "This is so unfair" or even simply "NO!" all to no avail.

There is also a war element in the story that brings to mind the harshness of the bombing attacks, the long journey to reach the beach only to find none of the boats that would take the soldiers back to England. There is the same attention to detail when McEwan deals with the nurses' training in the hospital - the way the sisters drum responsibility to the probationers, the cleanliness of the floors, the whiteness of the sheets, chilblains on the nurses hands - all evoke images in black and white, or sepia, your mind's eye picturing scenes in vivid detail.

Objectively speaking it's also a book about writing; what the author chooses to do with the material at hand. This thought is there from the moment we meet Briony and her early attempts to stage a play called The Trials of Arabella from the very first pages of the book.

In the end it is Briony's story, Briony's atonement. She with the writer's mind, her head in the clouds, conjuring a story to suit her reality. I mentioned I was starting to hate her to bits. I realize that the reason for the hate is that I understand her so much, I relate to her a lot and it is a very scary thought. Because it entails accepting gullibility, guilt and cowardice as well. And I can be very gullible, guilty and cowardly too.

I don't know if I made much sense so my apologies, I'm still trying to pick myself off the floor. Maybe I can go back and post about the book again much later. One thing is certain, I'm turning into an Ian McEwan fan. Goodness, so much for torturing myself with this heartbreaking yet unbelievably beautiful story.