Saturday, July 26, 2008
Atonement, the book
Seeing the movie inspired me to finally get around to reading this famous book by Ian McEwan. As expected, it was an illuminating experience.
Interestingly, McEwan quotes Jane Austen, just before unfolding this tragic story:
“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English: that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, you own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads, and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.
--Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Like the Catherine Morland character in Austen's book, Briony Tallis is a very young person with an active imagination. In this story, however, the circumstances and time period make it possible for the young person to be taken very seriously, and Briony's immature misinterpretation of the events she sees leads to the imprisonment of an innocent man and the breakdown of several relationships within her family. Several years later, Briony comes to realize the damage she's done, but any attempts to make things right again are thwarted by other events, and Briony must cope with the everlasting guilt over what she's done.
The novel is not told in the first person until the very end, when a 77-year-old Briony takes over as narrator. She has been a renowned author for some time, and she is pondering the completion and publication of a story she'd wanted to tell so long ago, but couldn't, for legal reasons. It will be an atonement she will not live to see.
The movie did a very good job of telling the story, setting the mood, and depicting the time period, which is about 1935-1940-something. Of course, the book sheds much more light on who all the characters were and their relationships with each other, so that the reader can see all that gets torn apart. The doomed, secret lovers Robbie and Cecilia are the center of the whole tragedy, but there's plenty more pain to go around.
There are many aspects of the plot that could lead to discussion, especially Briony's state of mind and motives. I also found the depiction of life in London during World War II fascinating. I've heard so much about how WWII lead to American women entering the job force and having all kinds of new experiences, but it never occurred to me how much scarier the war was for English civilians, and don't know why. Obviously, they are in Europe!
Anyway, I highly recommend the book, as if anyone wouldn't.