Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Writing Style-7.4
Literary Merit(whatever that means)-7.0

This was a beautifully written, well-crafted, solid novel. I had heard nothing but good things about it so I was pretty excited about reading it. It wasn’t earth-shattering or anything, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The novel consists of three main parts and an epilogue. It’s a story about, you guessed it… atonement. The first section was my favorite for some strange reason, even though the second section is a World War II war scene and the third section essentially reveals everything and wraps the story up. The first section is a quiet scene that introduces these wonderful characters and their innocence and youth. And really the novel turns out to be about this innocence when the main character, a young girl in the first chapter, screws up royally because of her innocence and youthful imagination.

The themes are complicated by the fact that the main character is also a burgeoning writer. Her writing allows her to progress through her stages of atonement.

The first scene also contains one of the greatest love scenes I’ve ever read. Here are some excerpts:

‘As their faces drew closer he was uncertain enough to think she might spring away, or hit him, movie-style, across the cheek with her open hand. Her mouth tasted of lipstick and salt… …They felt watched by their bemused childhood selves. But the contact of tongues, alive and slippery muscle, moist flesh on flesh, and the strange sound it drew from her, changed that. This sound seemed to enter him, pierce him down his length so that his whole body opened up and he was able to step out of himself and kiss her freely. What had been self-conscious was now impersonal, almost abstract.

They were beyond the present, outside time, with no memories and no future. There was nothing but obliterating sensation, thrilling and swelling, and the sound of fabric on fabric and skin on fabric as their limbs slid across each other in this restless, sensuous wrestling… …Cumulatively, these bites aroused him and enraged him, goaded him. Under her dress he felt for her buttocks and squeezed hard, and half turned her to give her a retaliatory slap, but there wasn’t quite the space… …They were clumsy, but too selfless now to be embarrassed. When he lifted the clinging, silky dress again he thought her look of uncertainty mirrored his own. But there was only one inevitable end, and there was nothing they could do but go toward it.

They held their breath before the membrane parted, and when it did she turned away quickly, but made no sound—it seemed to be a point of pride… …Instead of an ecstatic frenzy, there was stillness. They were stilled not by the astonishing fact of arrival, but by an awed sense of return—they were face to face in the gloom, staring into what little they could see of each other’s eyes, and now it was the impersonal that dropped away… …Nothing as singular or as important had happened since the day of his birth… …Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen… …He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract.

They had been motionless for perhaps as long as half a minute. Longer would have required the mastery of some formidable tantric art. They began to make love against the library shelves which creaked with their movement… …He forced himself to remember the dullest things he knew—bootblack, an application form, a wet towel on his bedroom floor. There was also an upturned dustbin lid with an inch of rainwater inside, and the incomplete tea-ring stain on the cover of his Housman poems.’

Really this is a fine read. I think I expected a little more with as many good things as I had heard about it. And it felt like the writing in the latter two-thirds of the book wasn’t as passionate as the first section. But, hey, you could do much worse than reading this book.

i agree. not earthshattering, but very enjoyable in the sense that the plot was interesting, it was told in a cool kind of cinematic way, hit some tried and true themes, and the writing style was smart and non-irritating. i like it when authors retell a pivotal scene from different points of view. i like when that happens in movies too.
When you say you like a retelling of a pivotal scene from different points of view a very good book came to mind. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears. It's sort of a murder mystery, but not really. There are four different perspectives on a murder and ultimately the book is about how fleeting truth is because everyone's accounts of the same events is so vastly different and influenced by their own involvement, background, and self interests. I highly recommend it. It's kind of long but I didn't think it read long, I loved it.
thanks for the rec! i'll definitely check it out.
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