Monday, October 8, 2012

"Atonement" by Ian McEwan Review

I've reached an epiphany.

There's a reason why this blog has experienced a period of apathy, neglect, and lonesomeness. And despite all my humblest apologies blaming my tedious workload, the college application process, the search for scholarships, and the demands of everyday life for my absence, there is a far deeper reason for the solitary state of a blog once inhabited by an active blogger. 

I haven't been reading. Not for myself, anyway. I've been stuffed full of coming-of-age short stories, poems, and novels in my AP Lit class, breezed through Their Eyes Were Watching God, and will soon be waltzing straight into Hamlet. But it's been forever since I've stepped into a Barnes and Noble, walked leisurely through the shelves, plucked off a book of my own choice, and actually read it for enjoyment. 

I could just as easily review a book that I've already read, but where's the fun in that? The joy of blogging comes from the inspiration of having just finished a brand new book, and feeling the urgent and slightly neurotic need to tell the world that you've read it and explain just how awful or amazing it is. 

Obviously, I've just finished reading Atonement for the first time, and it has renewed my blogging spirit and set my fingers to mercilessly tapping against the keyboard. 

The novel was amazing. I would trouble myself with establishing protocol with a plot summary, but it's just too good to hold off the praise for later. Atonement is an undeniable literary masterpiece in every identifiable aspect. Ian McEwan captures in engrossing richness the three perspectives of Briony Tallis, her older sister, Cecilia, and the charlady's son, Robbie, woven together by the thread of a series of events that alters the the lives of the characters and pinpoints the essentiality of perception in any story. At thirteen, Briony is struggling with her passage from a juvenile writer into a real novelist. Her problem lies in her lack of understanding of the world. While pondering on this, Briony happens to look out the window and witness an exchange between Cecilia and Robbie, and her misperception of the encounter, combined with the acts that follow, lead to a story with a depth that Briony would never have dreamed of. 

McEwan is genius. Everything about Atonement is sensual and alive--there is life in every object and emotional layering behind each passing observation. Nothing in Atonement is written for the mere purpose of being written, however. Even in the midst of such gripping description, the reader never feels overwhelmed because it is understood that every detail is essential. There isn't any tedium. 

It has also been awhile since I've been so completely pulled into the fictional world and felt as if I was seeing through the eyes of the character, or serving as an invisible presence in their little world that witnesses everything. Atonement did just that, however, literally yanking me out of reality and into the pages. I finished the book in two days, I was so engrossed. 

The syntactical and dictional vivacity of Atonement is magnificent, but all this would be nothing without McEwan's perfect feel for character development, especially in regards to the three main pieces of the puzzle. Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie each have a separate stream of consciousness that is distinct and filled with individuality. Their thoughts and emotions are all on display, and McEwan makes sure to give them each their own psyches. This is the greatest glory of the novel--the way it completely masters playing with perspectives. Everything--the setting, the plot, the supporting characters, and the main characters--is seen through three different lenses (there is a fourth, but only for a little while). It's truly magical, and provides for the best emotional response from the reader. The use of the different viewpoints jerks every heartstring and gives rise to conflicting emotions (which I personally love to have when reading a novel). It also better captures the dynamics of relationships, which are absolutely key in the novel. The relationships between people and the nature of those connections are the driving force behind what makes the novel so captivating, and it is Briony's misunderstanding of them that sets everything into motion. 

The complexities of Atonement and its near perfection are given no justice by my unorganized review. It's simply too hard to explain how brilliant the novel is and what exactly makes it so outstanding. It just provokes that "feeling"--the sense of contentment you feel when you just know you're reading something special. I know that it sounds like a bunch of nonsense now just because of my inability to articulate it, but just read it and I'm sure you'll understand afterwards. 


P.S: Yes, I know there's a movie. And yes, I have watched it. And YES there will be a review following shortly. Watch out for me :) And keep the comments coming. Even when I'm not posting, I always keep an eye on comments and make a point to respond. 


  1. Welcome back (again!). You couldn't have chosen a better book for a comeback review. And I get it. I get your feels for this book. It's incredibly complex and beautifully detailed and rich, and in the four years since I first read it, I don't think I've even come close to fully appreciating every aspect of it. This review makes me want to go dig out my copy and get lost in it again. (The Briony POV parts are my favourite, btw).

    1. Thank you :) I'm surprised that it's taken me so long to read the book, seeing that the movie is one of my favorites. But it couldn't have come at a better time. It's worth a second read. I know I'll definitely be giving it another look in the future.

  2. What do you do when you absolutely hate the narrator? I read this book when it came out back in '05 and while there were parts I absolutely love (namely the second half), I despised Briony so much that I really disliked the book when I finished it. Books/movies/TV shows which are based on a misunderstanding irritate me because it seems like such a convenient (e.g. lazy) plot device for the author. When the movie came out, I felt a bit better about the story but to this day, there is no way I can pick Atonement up again without comparing Briony with Dickens's worst villains.

    1. I understand where you're coming from. I hated Briony at so many points in the novel for celebrating her "victory" and being too cowardly to confess her mistakes later. What makes things even worse is that she gets her happy ending, marries, and becomes a novelist. But I personally enjoy reading books that make me feel frustrated, angry, sad, etc. It's realistic. The wicked don't always get punished and the good guys don't always win. For a novel to be so brutally life-like is out of the ordinary and pretty refreshing.

      I see how you could hate it, but even hating something is better than indifference. The emotional response is what matters. At least you didn't hate it because it was a bad book ha. Thanks for the comment :) I like different POVs.

  3. Ahhh, yes, it is amazing, isn't it? I don't want to say I 'love' this novel, because that's not the word for it precisely. I think 'fascinated' or 'intrigued' would be a better choice. I'm just mesmerized by the way the characters' worlds fall apart based on a single event - it's just fascinating and twisted.

    I think it speaks a lot to the story lover in me - lately I find myself hiding away in fictional worlds avoiding real-world problems, and I can kind of relate to Briony in that sense, making up that story to ease her conscience, and make it up to Robbie & Celia in that way. It's still very tragic though, isn't it? And Briony the child is horrid and I hate her at time, but Briony the woman does seem to be filled with regret and pain.

    I read this awhile back - but from what I remember I LOVED McEwan's style of writing. There's a point where Briony's frustrated with her cousins and goes and beats the living daylights out of some large weeds on their property - that was so intense and realistic! Really stuck with me. Look forward to the review of the film =)

    1. My feelings exactly. I couldn't have said it better myself Lady. Movie review coming soon :)

  4. It was interesting reading Gilead and Atonement in succession. The interesting thing was the way in which the telling became a part of the story. The narration folded in upon itself and revealed deeper tensions and motivations.