Book Review: Atonement

I picked up Atonement by Ian McEwan on the suggestion of a fellow editor, so I was prepared in every way to like this book. However, I was hugely disappointed. I understand why so many people think that it was a great book, but I myself cannot bring myself to praise it. This review contains a lot of spoilers, so it’s not for the faint of heart.
The first half was very beautiful and very slow. Reading through other reviews I see that it is supposed to be reflecting the tones of Virginia Woolf, but since I’ve never read her, I can’t agree or disagree. All I can say is that I spend over a hundred pages waiting for something to happen. I kept reading because I liked his writing style, but when you realize that practically nothing has happened and the book is almost halfway over, it makes it hard to press on. So finally at the end of part one we get to the heart of the matter, which is the fact that Briony, the thirteen-year-old sister, accuses Robbie of a crime he did not commit. What really happened was Robbie and Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, realized that they were in love with each other, and Briony was upset about their relationship, while at the same time Briony’s cousin was attacked by her older brother’s friend. Briony thought that Robbie attacked her cousin, and he is sentenced to prison.

Then the book skips five years to when Robbie is allowed to join the army and fight in World War II rather than serve the rest of his sentence. It shows him  making his way through France, intent on seeing Cecelia again. He has a piece of shrapnel in his stomach, but he ignores the pain and keeps on going. This was a really interesting part, but in the end it was pointless, as you will see.

The third part of the book shows Briony, now eighteen, as a nurse-in-training as she works at a hospital with wounded soldiers. She sees all this death and destruction and realizes that she was foolish girl skewing her perception of reality when she accused Rob so long ago. She is also skewered with guilt when she learns that her cousin is marrying the man who really attacked her. Briony, wanting to help her cousin and her sister, who has lost her love to te war, determines to tell the truth. She goes to her sister, Cecilia’s, apartment, and apologizes for her error so many years ago. Robbie has just made it back from France and is staying with Cecilia. He refuses to forgive Briony for sending him to prison but tells her that if she puts in writing what really happened, he might not hate her anymore. So Briony says that she is going to write a story to set the record straight. At this point I’m almost okay with the book because Robbie and Cecilia got back together, Briony seems to have turned into a decent person, and the writing is much faster paced.
Then we skip forward to the year 1999. This is where everything starts to come to pieces. The section is in first person, from the viewpoint of seventy-seven-year-old Briony. Briony explains that this whole book is her account of what happened and her attempt to tel everybody the truth, but unfortunately the book can’t be published until after her cousin and her husband (the true perpetrator) die, because he is a wealthy person who donates lots of money to charities and it wouldn’t do to defame his good name. Then Briony mentions that she rewrote the ending of her book and that in “real life” Robbie died from his shrapnel wound before he gets to see Cecilia, and Cecilia died before the war ends.
So not only is the whole book a meta book within a book, it’s fictionalized fiction. I generally don’t like books that know that they’re books. But I guess I would have been okay with it if it just ended with Briony stating that this was her account of what happened. Instead she admits that she made up the end. The whole book is fiction! Briony doesn’t really exist! And so Ian McEwan can make the book end however he wants! But instead he makes it end one way and then lets the reader know that it didn’t “really” end that way! What a load of rubbish! I don’t read books so that they can tell me that they’re made up. I already know that. I read book so that I can get immersed in the story and enjoy it. You can’t get immersed in a long, winding narrative in the first half of the story and then finally learn that a fictional character wrote the whole book and made up parts. It’s just not cool. Some people may like this meta self-consciousness, but it’s not what I bargained for when I picked up Atonement.

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One Response to Book Review: Atonement

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    bleh. I read a good chunk of that book and felt much the same. I expected it to be great because the writing was so beautiful but the story just lagged. I never finished it and I’m so glad I didn’t read that ending. I did, however, see the movie much later on and also didn’t like it, especially at the ending. While the book was tolerable due to the quality of writing style, the movie was tolerable due to the fact that it don’t move quite so darn slow (being a movie after all)…but still, both were wastes of too many of my hours.