I don't usually read popular fiction, so McEwan's Atonement
was a new experience. I can't say I was thrilled, but I wasn't horrified either. Atonement
reads like standard Oscar-bait romance fare (no surprise, then, to see the film version's critical success), and only the last few pages diverge suddenly. The twist that occurs at the end is much welcomed, for it forces the reader to step back from the plot and consider the narrator's motives (and by extension McEwen's message about the nature of literature). While I didn't enjoy the plot mechanics of the ending, which seem built upon a very elementary sense of closure, the implications of the twist at the end are really worth considering.
Not all was well in Atonement
-land, however. I'm not a huge fan of McEwan's writing style; while he seems similar in scope to Franzen, the former is somehow less precise in his word choice and description. That's a pretty vague criticism, but I can't quite put my finger on the problem. McEwen often repeats words: the females are always 'sensual' (count how many times he uses it!); in the library passage, McEwen overuses the verb 'trap'. Again, this isn't a huge issue, but it reads a little awkwardly. The characters themselves are a larger problem. Sure, they're unlikeable, but they strike me as somewhat unrealistic, as if McEwen doesn't really know what's going on inside the mind of a girl on the brink of adulthood. Briony's life seems hard to believe, particularly her cruelty toward others and her willingness to disengage icily from reality and exist within worlds of her own creation. Perhaps this is where the idea of atonement becomes clearest, or maybe not. For me, the biggest problem with the twist ending is that the reader has been cheated out of the ending (s)he expects. It reminds me a bit of The Usual Suspects
: by the end of that film, I was furious that I had spent two hours closely following a plot that hadn't happened
. What a waste of time! And while Atonement doesn't rely on its twist as a crutch (as does The Usual Suspects
), it makes one wonder whether Briony's story is really worth reading.
I certainly wouldn't read Atonement
again. It's a decent work but it's not what I had hoped it would be. The novel's triptych structure seems forced — almost as if McEwen felt that he had
to write a grand, sweeping epic — and the good parts just aren't long enough.
Overall, mixed feelings about Atonement
. If you're looking for a twist on the romantic drama, you'll perhaps find it interesting. Otherwise, you might better spend your time with the condensed story of the film version; James McAvoy is a talented actor, so you'll be getting the best of both worlds.