30 Days of Book Reviews: Day Ten – Atonement

Read in December, 2007
This is sort of a slap-dash review, because I am still digesting Atonement and figuring out what I think about its various intricate parts.

But let me say, I loved Atonement. In fact, I read it because I was not completely happy with the movie and wanted to see why I thought the movie didn’t work for me. It had been on my to-read list forever, but I started reading it almost immediately after I got home. I love the imagery, I love the inner dialog of Briony’s about the nature of being a writer and I especially loved the description of the evacuation of Dunkirk and the resulting chaos at Briony’s hospital. Mostly, though, I loved the ending. I thought it was far superior to the movie’s and made a great deal more sense. Of course, I still envisioned Vanessa Redgrave as Briony, but I liked it better.

Dear Ian:

Seven and a half years later, I decided you deserved a proper review. In part because you are one of my most beloved writers for whom, like Donna Tartt and Margaret Atwood, I wait and wait and wait for your next novel. Curious that I picked Atonement first to properly review, however, since its not actually my most favorite of your novels. But it does have a couple of extra-special awesome parts that I want to dig into with you.

The first is the genesis of the story, which I understand came from Jane Austen’s {book: Northanger Abbey]. Perhaps its your writing style, but unlike Saturday where I could see your conversation with Virginia Woolf jumping off the page, it took me awhile to understand the connection. But in both a little naive girl with dramatic proclivities sees a small things and allows it to bloom into an untruth. Jane shuts the little girl down quickly an redirects her, but you take that kernel of an idea and run with it, leading whole families into ruin and destruction. What makes your conversation with Austen so perfect is that you take a moment in her book and use it as a plot device to say, “what if no one told the girl to stop?” And your plot evolves from there.

The next is the mother of ALL unreliable narrators. Sneaky McEwan gives us some hints that the story may be a literary form created by Briony, but they are sneaky, hidden gems and if one (such as me) is so distracted by the larger story of Dunkirk and England during the blitz misses it, finding out that nothing we’ve read is exactly true is a shock. Briony is an unreliable narrator on two fronts. One, because she is telling a tale, she is recounting things through the lense of her experience, not through a more knowing omniscient narrator, but more importantly Two, because she is largely making the entire novel up to make up for the story that she told early in the book. This i her homage and her apology for the lives she’s ruined. So we can never know the truth. We can only know what Briony wishes had happened.

Except there are some known truths because you report with exquisite and often painful detail the experience of living in England and working as a nurse during WWII to a degree that made my nerdy historian’s heart skip a beat. The time you took on Dunkirk, easily one of the most interesting and courageous battles (I could start crying here thinking of all of the English fishing boats hauling soldiers, starving and thirsty, out of the channel after the German’s drove them into the sea. Okay, fine Ian, a few tears. I can rarely talk about Dunkirk without getting misty). But for such a critically important battle, Dunkirk gets so little attention in modern media. I savored (and sobbed) through every moment. And we know these things are true, despite Briony and her sketchy narration, because they are known historical facts and we know she has little to no incentive to create stories about them. Her job as a nurse is not what drives her to tell this tale – its a desire to give her sister and her lover the life they deserved.

Which is really where the magic comes in because so much of it is true that we can suspend our disbelief and understand maybe Briony sees something that would have happened but for her lie. That would have happened had a grown up questioned her, as the grownup (future boyfriend) did in Northanger Abbey.

Masterful work. And while I prefer your more everyday stories, this is a gem.

When is the next book coming, Ian?

Kisses and hearts.



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