This week I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which relates the story of a young girl, Briony Tallis, and how her false testimony – although she believes it true – destroys the lives of her sister and the man she loves, and how she spends her life trying to atone for it.
I must say this surprisingly one of the most difficult books of the 100 books to read before you die list to finish. I was ahead of schedule two weeks ago and reading this book put me back just on track. I actually finished Atonement this morning and I actually read another book from the list in the meantime because I was not inspired at all by this one. It took me forever to finish part I. The reason is simple: it’s slow. So very slow. Multiple points of view of the exact same thing for pages on end: it feels like the author is admiring their own style. It’s maddening.
I have to admit the descriptions are vivid and in fact I found the house and surroundings to be more interesting than the beginning of the story. They had more character to them than the people whose story we’re following, sad really. I found it hard to relate to any of the characters; they seem to exist in a vacuum, they don’t seem to come from or go to anywhere. I felt they had no texture.
The following parts are more fast-paced but didn’t satisfy me really. It felt like the Second World War was used as a setting to hide the lack of actual story. Briony’s decision to renounce a Cambridge education to become a war nurse seems more like a self-indulging sacrifice than something true. She punishes herself on an individual scale but she does nothing to actually correct the mistake she made. She even finds some excuses for herself as to why she didn’t come forward to explain she made an assumption and based her testimony on impressions.
I find in the end, the crime she must atone for is not so much accusing the wrong person of rape – although it is bad, but witnesses are people with prejudices and can be wrong – but rather not to speak up when she realizes her mistake. She’s ruined a life. And I don’t see how writing a novel in the third person even if she doesn’t change the name sets things right.
Also the victim here doesn’t speak up; I get that. A rape is a traumatizing experience and some women never speak of it at all. Still I find it hard to admit that Lola ends up marrying her rapist; it feels wrong on so many levels. And I can’t wrap my head around that decision. That didn’t sit well with me at all.
In short I don’t think Atonement should be on the list of 100 books to read before you die. There are books out there that are more interesting, more compelling and overall better in terms of writing and character representation. I might have to go out there and read some reviews to figure out why people in 2003 seemed to think it should be on that list because I don’t see it.