Friday, 30 March 2012

'Atonement' by Ian McEwan (2001)

I know that this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Also, for the past five years or so I've had various people telling me (some of them friends with opinions I trust) that I should read this book. I wanted to check out the film adaptation too. But for some reason or other I've never got around to checking out the book until now. My thoughts? Well, I don't usually do this but I'll make an exception for this one. I'm going to apologise in advance for this review. I know a lot of people out there really love this novel and I genuinely don't wish to cause any offence. But I have to speak the truth! I hated this book! To explain why I disliked this book so much I'm reviewing it by each of its four parts.

Atonement opens with a quote from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (which is incidentally no bad thing at all) and then the story starts properly. Part One of this book takes place on a single day in 1935. 13-year-old Briony Tallis lives at her family's country estate in Surrey, and on the hottest day of the summer she witnesses a moment of sexual tension between her older sister Cecilia and family friend Robbie Turner. Briony is confused and disturbed by what she sees and interprets this moment as an act of aggression on Robbie's part. Later that day Briony reads a filthy letter from Robbie that is addressed to Cecilia. Then she catches Robbie and Cecilia having sex. Briony comes to the conclusion that Robbie must be some sort of "maniac". When her cousin Lola is attacked and raped that night, Briony then accuses Robbie of the crime. Part One takes up about half of the book and is 180 pages long. It could have easily been told in 90! This section is far too long and is so slow-moving and hard-going and tedious! It takes Cecilia four pages to decide what dress to wear at a family dinner and Robbie spends almost an entire chapter in a bathtub! Mrs Tallis also gets an entire chapter all to herself even though she's a very minor, redundant character. We also get a very lengthy, wholly unnecessary description about some random temple in the middle of a pond. At this point I felt like screaming "I DON'T CARE! WHAT THE FLIPPING HECK DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?! THIS IS SO BORING!" Yes, McEwan's book is very well-written boredom but it's boring nonetheless. Some authors have the knack of still holding my interest when they write long descriptions or go off on tangents and digressions but McEwan isn't one of them. In fact it isn't until about 150 pages in that the story picks up and we finally get a bit of suspense. This suspense lasted for about 30 pages and the story quickly got back to being boring again.

In all fairness to McEwan I do think the slow pacing of Part One was probably a conscious decision. I think he was trying to set the scene and introduce the characters - and if the characters had been at all interesting and engaging then I think the s-l-o-w pace and unnecessarily lengthy descriptions wouldn't have bothered me so much. Unfortunately McEwan's characters aren't in the least bit interesting or engaging or well-developed or endearing! They're incredibly boring! They're completely devoid of any sort of personality and I didn't care about any of them! McEwan spends an inordinate amount of time describing the physical surroundings of the characters but he seems to have forgotten that an author is actually supposed to describe and develop the characters themselves! For example: what do we actually know about Cecilia? Erm... that she went to Cambridge. That she's a chain-smoker. That she fancies Robbie. And that's about it! McEwan's characters never really felt real to me like characters in truly great novels do. I could never picture Briony, Cecilia, Robbie or any of the other characters existing beyond the pages of the book. They never once felt like living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people.

Another thing that I disliked about this book was that some of the ridiculous choices that the characters (and McEwan) made made me want to throw this book at the wall. Now I know a lot of Atonement's fans really hate Briony for the lie she told and I did think she was an irritating and weird child. I didn't actually like her. But at the same time I think McEwan unfairly demonises her. He goes out of his way to make her seem like a villain! But wouldn't most 13-year-old kids be legitimately creeped out by what she'd seen that day? Yes, Briony draws the wrong conclusions and tells a lie but because of her age and because of what she'd seen that day I can understand why she thought something sinister was going on between Cecilia and Robbie.

As far as I'm concerned the way that Cecilia and Robbie both behaved on that day in 1935 was incredibly inappropriate. Why should Briony get all the blame for everything that happened that day? Does it not occur to Cecilia that stripping down to her underwear in broad daylight might not be such a good idea? Does it not occur to Robbie that writing a vulgar, obscene letter about a woman's "c***" might not be such a good move? Oh wait! Instead of being turned off and repulsed by this letter - like most sensible women would be - the letter actually turns Cecilia on and causes her to realise that she loves him! Does not compute McEwan, does not compute! Most women would rather receive a love letter like the one Captain Wentworth writes to Anne Eliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion! At this point in Atonement it became very obvious that this book had been written by a man! Also does it not occur to Cecilia and Robbie that doing the full vertical nasty, in the family library, in a house full of guests, who could walk in at any moment, might not such a good idea?! THE FREAKING IDIOTS!!! If they were that desperate for a shag than why not sneak off to an empty bedroom and lock the door? Or alternatively go off and have sex outside? There's acres of parkland and it would be much less likely that they'd get caught! But oh no, Cecilia and Robbie are too stupid to consider those other options and they get caught in the act by Briony. This leads me to another point. Cecilia and Robbie have just realised that Briony has caught them having sex. Does it not occur to them that a 13-year-old kid, especially one from the 1930s, might be a bit freaked out by this?! Robbie's read Freud for goodness' sake! Do they try to calm Briony down? Do they offer her some sort of explanation? You know, "when a man and a woman love each other very much...", that sort of thing? No! Cecilia storms off and Robbie just stands there and glares at Briony. Briony is then left to assume that Robbie has just raped Cecilia.

Again, I didn't like or care about Briony but why should she get all the blame for everything that happened on that day? Shouldn't Cecilia and Robbie both take some of the blame as well? Well not according to McEwan. You can really tell that he sympathises with Cecilia and Robbie and wants the reader to sympathise with those characters as well. Sorry McEwan but I couldn't! To me Cecilia and Robbie were just two stupid, self-absorbed, horny idiots! And as you can imagine this did affect my sympathy for them somewhat! I didn't even feel any great love between them either. Even though McEwan keeps insisting that they're in love I never felt it.

This is yet another thing that bothers me about this book. Everything just feels so contrived. Far too many questions are left open. Wasn't Robbie questioned by the police? Didn't Robbie have a barrister? Even the most incompetent lawyer could have torn the charges apart and ripped them to shreds! Lionel Hutz could have gotten Robbie off! What happened at the trial? Wasn't there a testimony? Did Cecilia ever confront Briony about her accusations? Or did she just stand by and let her lover get sent down out without even doing anything to try to help him? If so, then why? And are we really supposed to believe - as McEwan suggests - that class bigotry and prejudice was the driving force for Robbie being found guilty? Come on, this is England in 1935 not 1835! I did not enjoy Part One of this book! OK, the final 30 pages or so of Part One are semi-enjoyable. We finally got a bit of suspense and I did have some pity for Robbie. However, that wasn't because I actually liked Robbie. I still thought he was a moron. The only reason I pitied him was because I'd have pity for anyone who was imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit! I hadn't been enjoying Atonement but I decided to carry on reading the book after Part One. The final 30 pages of Part One had given me a glimmer of hope that the second half of the book might have more to offer.

Part Two of this book is set five years after the events of Part One and Britain is now in WWII. Robbie has been released from prison and is now serving as a soldier in northern France. Part Two describes Robbie's experiences at Dunkirk, with very little of what goes on in this section having anything to do with the plot-line of Part One. I was hoping that we might get some action and suspense in this section but it's just so, so dull. There's hardly any fighting. It consists almost entirely of overly lengthy descriptions of the French countryside and of Robbie walking around with two annoying soldiers. I skim-read virtually all of this section. I just tried to pick out any important bits so I could finish the book as quickly as I possibly could before I lost the will to live. I have no idea how McEwan managed to make the Battle of Dunkirk boring but somehow he managed it! I came very close to abandoning the book at this point but I still carried on. I had given up on any hope that I might still be able to enjoy this book. I carried on reading thinking that I might get some enjoyment out of deriding it.

This brings me to Part Three. This section overlaps with the events of Part Two. In this section Briony is now 18. She's turned down a place at Cambridge, has moved to London, and is now working as a nurse. This is because Briony has worked out what was really going on between Cecilia and Robbie on that day in 1935 and now realises the full extent of her actions. She has also worked out that it must have been Paul Marshall - her brother Leon's friend - who raped Lola. Briony is now filled with guilt and shame for her lie about Robbie and is searching for atonement (yep, there is actually a reason for the book's title). Again, this section is mostly very, very dull. I just skim-read it and tried to pick out any important things as I did with Part Two. The only part of this section that I genuinely liked is when Briony has a conversation with a dying French soldier called Luc Cornet. This scene is actually quite sad and Luc comes across as a genuinely likeable character. What a shame that he's only in this book for about 6 pages! We don't get very much historical information about what life in London was like during the Blitz either. I would have been interested in that. Instead this section mostly consists of Briony thinking "I feel so bad about what I did... Sister Drummond is really harsh and makes all the nurses cry... I scrub bedpans... blah blah blah blah blah..." I also found Briony even more irritating in this section than I did in Part One. Why does Briony only care about putting things right with Robbie and Cecilia and not with Lola?! Why does Briony just let her marry her rapist?! Doesn't Briony care about Paul Marshall finally getting what he deserves?! Yes, Briony suspects that Lola knows Paul Marshall is her rapist and would just deny it if Briony came forward... but it's Briony's goshdarn responsibility to make sure that Lola does know if she doesn't already! At the end of this section Briony then goes off to meet the reunited Cecilia and Robbie. They both tell Briony that they will never be able to forgive her for what she's done. Nevertheless Briony agrees to go through the legal proceedings to clear Robbie's name despite the fact that Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for the crime.

We then come to the final section of the book. Hooray! This is Part Four. This section of the book is set in London in 1999 and it's the only part of the book which is written in first-person. Briony is now 77 and is a successful novelist. She's also approaching death but she has one more book left to publish... the book you have just read. But what about Cecilia and Robbie you might ask? What are they doing now? Well it turns out that in a postmodern, metafictional twist that Cecilia and Robbie were never reunited. Shock Horror! Briony completely made their reunion up. Robbie died of septicaemia on the beaches of Dunkirk, and Cecilia was killed by the bomb that destroyed Balham tube station a few months later. Briony was never able to atone for what she did and has written her book in order to give Robbie and Cecilia the happy ending that they never got in real life. Yep, it turns out that the whole book has been written by the unreliable narrator Briony. Now sometimes an unreliable narrator can make a story more interesting but not for this book. To me the ending was only one step away from the "and it was all a dream". But you know what? I don't actually care. If I'd truly cared about Cecilia and Robbie I think I'd have found the ending sad and moving but I wasn't bothered. In the past I've read books with tragic endings that have genuinely made me sad like Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Notre Dame de Paris and The Great Gatsby. These endings did depress me but that was only because I enjoyed those books and cared about what happened to the characters. They're excellent books. Atonement is not one of them! I don't care what the critics say. Nothing will convince me that this book is one of the great works of literary fiction in recent years. 

Again, I'm truly sorry if you loved this book. It's just that I hated it. Despite one or two good scenes I think this book is crappy. I know I probably shouldn't get so worked up about a silly book but I get worked up about these things. Anyway, I will NEVER read this book again. I really can't see myself reading any of McEwan's other books either. If Atonement is his best work then I'd hate to read his worst! It's fair to say that Atonement isn't for me!

Rating: 1/5


Anonymous said...

And now you know exactly how I feel about The Great Gatsby! Sometimes you hate something so much that you just have to have a passionate and unreasoned rant about it. I have only ever read Atonement once and that was quite a few years ago so I'm a bit sketchy and vague on the details but I can remember that I did enjoy it. Not one of my all time favourites, but I definitely found some merit in it. It IS well written, that you can't deny. Yes, I quite agree that some of the characters do some odd things that turn out later to have been stupid but don't we all do that?React in the heat of the moment and then regret it later?
Also, remember that it is an account of a biased narrator some 60 odd years after some of the events. Briony is obviously twisting some if not all of the story albeit probably subconsciously to make herself feel better and less guilty. That is why the ending is really quite clever- we never know exactly what happened and just how much of it was constructed/manipulated by the narrator. That's why you get an interesting blend of Briony trying to justify her actions (maybe they were actually shagging somewhere more private and then did have the birds and bees conversation with her, we don't know) mixed with self-loathing (portraying herself as a whiny, idiotic, jealous teen.) That's why I found it interesting. You have to see this story as not being about Cecilia and Robbie at all (the main reason why the film did not work for me AT ALL). It's all about Briony and the psychology of a emotionally unstable person who is torn apart by guilt but too cowardly to do anything real to put it right. Of course she isn't going to tell Lola, or confess that she made it all up! That's not who Briony is! She's a coward! The book is just her lame-ass attempt at Atonement! That is the ironic twist.

Indigo Montoya said...

Yes, the book IS well-written but if you look at my review again I never once denied that in my review anyway.
But did you actually CARE about any single one of the characters in this book? Did you care about Cecilia and Robbie?! Did you want them to be happy? Did you actually care if they got reunited or not? Even if you take the fact that it's Briony's story into account it's OBVIOUS that McEwan wants the reader to feel sympathy for them and care about them. But he doesn't give us any reasons as to why we should! Well, apart from the tragedy that pulls them apart. But this is just manipulative as far as I'm concerned though. We should want a couple to get together because we actually like them not because we feel sorry for all the bad stuff that they go through.
Say what you like about The Great Gatsby but at least it's short! The length of Atonement is ridiculous! Having Cecilia take 4 pages to decide what dress she wants to wear is ridiculous! Giving Mrs Tallis an entire chapter all to herself is ridiculous! And how did Robbie get sent down in the first place?! Any half-decent lawyer should have been able to get him off! That was just so massively contrived it wasn't even funny.
And the ending in general just pisses me off. I get that it's supposed to be ironic but I usually detest postmodern, metafictional things! I do not like reading a book only to be told that the writer has made stuff up and that this book which I wasted hours of my precious time on may never have happened. I KNOW that the events never happened because it's a fictitious novel! Stop trying to show off and stop trying to make yourself look clever! William Goldman used the whole matafictional thing to much better effect than McEwan did.

Anonymous said...

No I couldn't give a crap about Robbie or Cecilia, but I DID find Bryony interesting, and to me that's the whole point. An interesting insight into a damaged mind. And to be honest I actually rather liked the Mrs Tallis chapter. :)

Indigo Montoya said...

Er, OK then! I guess we'll leave it at that!