Friday, September 16, 2011

'Atonement' by Ian McEwan

16 September 2011

For some years I have felt like I was the only person in the world who hadn’t read Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel ‘Atonement’. I’ve just finished the unabridged audio version of the book (wonderfully read by Carole Boyd) and I can now see what all the fuss was about. ‘Atonement’ starts in 1935 and appears to be firmly in the tradition of the great country house novel: it reminded me at times of ‘Brideshead Revisted’ and 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins (reviewed here in June 2009). The third-person narration alternates, with each chapter, between the viewpoints of the main characters, slipping back a little in time with each change of perspective to fill in more details on some of the same events. This iterative approach to the narrative creates a jigsaw image of what happened that only gradually reveals itself. Later in the book, the passages dealing with the Second World War, play the same game more slowly as we spend longer in the company of each of three principal protagonists. This process of gradual revelation allows the reader to spot most of the main plot twists in advance – only for the author to undermine our smug satisfaction by casually confirming the predicted surprise as if it was assumed that everyone would already know. ‘Atonement’ deals with the end of childhood, both literally and in relation to the onset of the horrors of war. It also focuses on the changing nature of the English class system before and after the Second World War, much like 'The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters (reviewed here in June 2010). In both books an outsider from a lower social class has become attached to the family of the country house and this allows for reflections on the momentous changes happening in society at this time. But ‘Atonement’ is really about writing, the nature of fiction and the development of the novel. McEwan plays a dazzling game of meta-fiction, presenting an apparently conventional novel, then introducing self-reflective literary criticism of that novel within the same plot and finally pulling back to reveal the truth behind the construction of the story we have been immersed in. As you approach the final pages you realise that you should have been thinking about who was writing the words you have been reading and why. It’s an impressive work, beautifully written and heart-breakingly sad. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.



At 7:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done. Are you going to get round to Pat Barker soon, too?


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