Ian McEwan’s Atonement: a Review

AtonementAtonement by Ian McEwan

So this is another one by Ian McEwan, another piece of mastery of psychological suspense, of ironic view of human fate and weaknesses. Reading the blurb and the first 370 of the 372 pages, you’d think just that. Again he’s at it: prolonged scenes of breathless introspection, absurd turns of fate, descriptions coming alive and experiential merry-go-rounds unreeled to the tiniest detail.

And yet, this time you’re in for a big surprise.

The blurb is right: it’s about a girl’s misunderstanding of an adult story, and about the butterfly effect of this fatal day in 1935. The first 370 pages are indeed about the consequences of that day. And about various points of view over that day, as the first chapter of the novel presents, in a Woolfian manner, one event as seen by each protagonist. So this first chapter is an immersion into protagonists’ feelings and involvement. The second chapter is an immersion into the experience of war, so gripping that you can’t put the book aside and turn off the light to sleep. The third and last chapter comes back to the girl, now grown up,facing the consequences of her deed. So the blurb is right – for the first 370 pages at least.

But it’s the epilogue that changes everything. It not just leaps forward to our times, giving a detached, if nostalgic, retrospective view of the whole story: getting old, living with guilt, living with crime. It not just shatters you into the awareness that the heroine, now in her late seventies, has spent her whole life working towards atonement for her childhood deed. It not just provides a less-than-happy ending to the story of the protagonists.

It suddenly faces you with a new interpretation. The story finished long ago, the heroine has put it in the book you’ve just been reading, and now’s the author’s turn to close his book. A step outside the story, outside the novel, prompting a new viewpoint of text, characters, writing, authoring. Somehow makes you feel you’ve been like one of the characters too, captive to a point of view.

Reader, writer, story-teller, heroes, life, fiction – all mixes up: life is art, reality is fiction, fiction is multi-layered, within the text, outside the text, what does the writer do to his heroes?… John Fowles was long ago. Ian McEwan is here, now. Just read the book!

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