Sometimes, “Sorry” is Just Not Enough

I had to give Atonement a few days to percolate. There are two sides to this coin and both sides carry equal weight. Like a football captain, I stand on the field and call heads or tails. On each side of the coin, there is a valid argument for why this books is a literary masterpiece and why it is a slog from hell.

Because I like to end on a positive note, I will start with why this entry on #theLIST could be considered an unbearable slog. The major issue, to me, is the interminable (but extremely lushly written) exposition, which lasts for half the book. That’s right. Half the book. McEwan spends the first half of the book on a day or so in the lives of the later main characters. He sets up the characters, inch by inch, revealing by their actions their interrelationship with each other. Sadly, none of the characters are particularly likable, with the exception of Robbie. It is also difficult to wade through the winding, image-laden prose, to the main character points that must be borne in mind for the second half of the book. My entire book club, all of whom made it through The 19th Wife, another story altogether, gave up before getting out of book one. That is when you know the exposition is too long and the prose overwrought. I admit, I had strong thoughts about giving up during Book 1 myself. It seemed as if nothing would ever happen.

And then, something did happen – an action which permanently altered the course of lives. Book 2 moves through World War II years, when Briony and Cecelia become nurses. Ever competitive, the two sisters move through the war, struggling to work out their relationship and balance that with other relationships. Minor characters disappear, except being mentioned in passing, inserting events that would later prove to be important and insightful. This is where Atonement starts earning its accolades. McEwan is a master of dropping a hint, here and there, that leads inexorably to a conclusion that is as unsatisfying as it is realistic. And here is where Atonement earns its literary kudos – in the unfulfilled desire to make amends that can never be made.

On the positive side, I have read a lot of overwrought prose in the last year and McEwan, at least, does it really well. He concentrates on sights, smells, and literary metaphors that play out – like bridges between the past and the present. His writing style feels heavy and sometimes very burdensome, but he creates a world that cradles its people with perfect synchronicity. If you can wade through the jungle of adjectives, you find the core idea. If you cannot wade through the adjectives, you throw the book at the wall and head straight back to whatever you were reading before you started this piece.

Love it or hate it, the realism is gritty, even if it is buried in the appearance of beauty. No one really ends well here, nor should they, if we discount fairy tale endings. The ability to wring so much regret is a great gift. I just wish he would make the payoff a little easier to achieve – when five out of seven avid readers throw the book aside in disgust, it screams for a bit of restraint.

7/10 hearts – and that is only because I finished the book. Had I not made it past Book 1 through sheer, dogged stubborn will, I would probably have given it 4/10.

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