January 08, 2008

Review: Atonement

by Ian McEwan
351 pages
First Sentence:

The play-- for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets,constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper--was written by her in a two-day
tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

The line on the bottom of the front cover says "A beautiful and majestic fictional panorama." And it's true. This may be one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. Which is not to say pleasant. The subject matter, adult themes and the violence of war, are certainly difficult to get through at times. But they are all a necessary part of the journey.

As I neared the last 100 pages of the book, I was suddenly seized with a terrible fear: that no matter what happened at the end, there would be nothing more to read. I have never experienced this sensation before. I had to put the book down that night because I was paralysed with the thought of it being over. Even now I am considering picking it back up to reread it right away. Unfortunately I have promised the book to a friend and I have a few books to read to complete one more reading challenge. It will just have to wait.

*WARNING* possible spoilers
Briony is the fanciful 13 year old who witnesses a scene that she doesn't understand. She misinterprets what is happening and falsely accuses an innocent young man of a heinous crime. The man is given the option to be freed from prison in order to serve as a soldier in WWII, where his only goal and comfort is to survive to get back to the woman who loves him. In the meantime, Briony has grown up and realises the full extent of her deed.

I found the settings to be very telling as to the states of mind of each the characters. The near ruin of the family estate in the first half of the book mirrors the breakdown of the inner state of each character in their turn. Briony is outgrowing the childish world she has always existed in. Cecilia and Robbie both are outgrowing the carefree friendship of a lifetime as playmates for the more complicated position of lovers. The family is breaking down as the father is away from home nearly continually and the mother is menaced by migraines and disappointment in her children.

The second half of the book is set in the throws of war. Robbie, Cecilia and Briony all lose the last threads of innocence as they witness the terrors of gruesome death all around, Robbie as a soldier and Cee and Briony as nurses. And believe me, the words paint a grueling picture. I won't say anything more about the story as I don't want to ruin it for anyone else.

That would be the poster for the movie that was finally widely released over the weekend. And I watched it last night. Now the book is predominately introspective so I wasn't sure how that would translate onto film but, being nominated for 7 Golden Globes, I figured that they must have done a pretty good job of it. They did. The movie was just as much a "beautiful and majestic fictional panorama" as the book was. My husband pointed out how heavily imaged it was. More story is told through pictures than through dialogue. It was beautiful and uncomfortable in exactly the same way as reading it had been. If you have the chance to see this in the theater, smuggle in some tissues and forgo the buttered popcorn. It's hard to wipe away tears with salt and oil on your fingers.


Trish said...

I am reading this one right now (about 80 pages in) and I keep thinking how surprised I am at how easy it is to get into. I was afraid it would be too "literary" or inaccessible. I didn't read the second half of your post, but the first half of your post makes me want to skip out of work at lunch and go home and read read read. :)

Petunia said...

I have so much more that I want to say but I don't dare. But I loved it from beginning to end.

Carol said...

Now, you are really tempting me to go see that movie!!!!!!! I loved that book. I think it was one of my favorites of 2006. It was surprising because I usually don't care for the books this particular book club person recommends, but I love this one. The writing is perfect IMHO.

Carrie K said...

I think I misunderstood the spoilers I'd read earlier and now I must read the book/see the movie.

And post grad! Fabulous!

Nymeth said...

Lovely review, Petunia. I really need to read this one.

Petunia said...

Carol-the writing IS perfect and my opinion is not always so humble.

Carrie-now I'm curious about the spoilers you read. Hhmmm...

Nymeth-yes. Yes you do.

calon lan said...

Very nice review. I loved both the book and the movie, although my experience of reading the book was having to put it down as I neared the end because I was so frustrated about the impending doom. But I did stay up late one night just to finish it, and it was worth the effort. And the movie? Pure beauty. I need to see it again.

BookGal said...

I loved the book ... it is beautifully written and haunting. Your review is lovely. I'm really looking forward to the movie. A group of women who've all read the book are going after work this week.

Framed said...

This book has been on my shelf for quite some time. I don't know when I will get to it, but I want to read it before I see the movie. What a dilemna.

Sheila said...

I enjoyed the book very much. Thanks for the review of the movie!

Petunia said...

Calon-I was afraid of what the end would hold. I was all tied up in knots.

Bookgal-Oooo, enjoy the movie. It is fabulous.

Framed-Read the book first, and read it soon.

Sheila-I keep hearing that from everyone. It appears everyone loved the book.

Trish said...

Well, probably could have gotten away with reading the rest of your post. I just finished it the other day and found it difficult to write about without wanting to convey the extreme emotions I felt at the end of the book. I was reading the book on the plane--sitting in between my hubby and another man--and I started bawling during the last couple of pages. I think they both thought I had lost it. :)

verbatim said...

Reading this book is like enjoying a good meal -- pleasure on so many levels. The rhythm, the imagery, the characterization, the plot, thoughtful thematic elements, etc. I read it twice. The war portion reminded of watching Thin Red Line -- the stream of consciousness conveying the chaos of war.

Jeane said...

I want to read this book now, I keep hearing so much about it (on blogs) such a good review