Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Cecilia went to the kitchen to fill the vase, and carried it up to her bedroom to retrieve the flowers from the handbasin. When she dropped them in they once again refused to fall into the artful disorder she preferred, and instead swung round in the water into a willful neatness, with the taller stalks evenly distributed around the rim. She lifted the flowers and let them drop again, and they fell into another orderly pattern. Still, it hardly mattered. It was difficult to imagine this Mr. Marshall complaining that the flowers by his bedside were too symmetrically displayed. She took the arrangement up to the second floor, along the creaking corridors to what was known as Auntie Venus’s room, and set the vase on a chest of drawers by a four-poster bed, thus completing the little commission her mother had set her that morning, eight hours before.

Actually, a good while ago I did pick this book up at random, when I was baby-sitting once and the kids had gone to bed, and I hadn’t brought any of my own books, and I was not very impressed by it then. But that was a long time ago, and I was much younger than I am now. So in spite of the dramatic failure of Saturday, I decided to read Atonement. This is because I thought the movie was quite good, and also because I was sure that Atonement had a good story; and I thought that this good-story aspect would immediately put it head and shoulders above Saturday, which about a quarter of the way through had still not got started with any story.

Let me preface this by saying that I am the kind of person who thinks a lot. It has been suggested to me on at least two occasions (maybe a few more than two) that I overthink things. This is brutal on standardized tests, especially the reading comprehension sections which I always do well on but which take me loads of time because I am contemplating how each of the four possible answers might be seen to make sense. I mention this because I don’t want there to be any confusion about my primary complaint with Atonement.

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, is it even remotely possible for these people to quit THINKING IN THEIR BRAINS a lot of long-ass thoughts about all the BORING SHIT THEY ARE DOING when it is all wholly irrelevant and just GET ON WITH IT? And by “it” of course I mean having sex in libraries and telling nasty lies about people and hallucinating at Dunkirk. (Dunkirk!)

(I turn into fifth-book Harry Potter when confronted with annoyingness of Ian McEwan calibre.)

It’s such a shame because I really do think Atonement has an excellent premise, and the book just absolutely destroys anything that might be remotely interesting about it by going on and on and on and on and on and on and on in a prose style which is – I’m sorry, Ian McEwan! – simply not elegant or original enough to be its own raison d’être. This book is no Lolita or Midnight’s Children; it is not even I Capture the Castle or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – the writing is neither extremely beautiful nor extremely charming and endearing, and the reader (I refer here to myself) is not content to carry on reading it even when nothing much is happening. WHICH IS ALWAYS.

I mean almost always. But it felt like always. And if I hadn’t known that there were going to be brief but interesting spurts of Things Happening, I would not have had sufficient stamina to finish it. And as it was I skipped long chunks of Nothing Happening. Like this:

Not long after lunch, once she was assured that her sister’s children and Briony had eaten sensibly and would keep their promise to stay away from the pool for at least two hours, Emily Tallis had withdrawn from the white glare of the afternoon’s heat to a cool and darkened bedroom. She was not in pain, not yet, but she was retreating before its threat. There were illuminated points in her vision, little pinpricks, as though the worn fabric of the visible world was being held up against a far brighter light. She felt in the top right corner of her brain a heaviness, the inert body weight of some curled and sleeping animal; but when she touched her head and pressed, the presence disappeared from the coordinates of actual space. Now it was in the top right corner of her mind, and in her imagination she could stand on tiptoe and raise her right hand to it. It was important, however, not to provoke it; once this lazy creature moved from the peripheries to the center, then the knifing pains would obliterate all thought, and there would be no chance of dining with Leon and the family tonight.

OH MY GOD.

That wasn’t even the whole bit. That was just all I could bear to copy. Actually that passage goes on for a while. She spends a long damn time thinking about her headache, and then she thinks about her children and tells us all the things we have already observed about Briony and Cecilia because we have seen them interacting with people, and it goes on and on and on and on and on. And the only interesting thing that happens is she overhears Lola being molested by the chocolate magnate but she thinks they’re just playing a game. And in case you’re wondering, her headaches never bear any relation to the plot, and neither does she much. And obviously when Ian McEwan was a lad in writing school somebody told him that the “show, don’t tell” stricture was nonsense and you must just do exactly as you please; and Ian McEwan took it dramatically to heart.

I would also say that the book seems basically insincere, so it was impossible for me to engage with it, and furthermore he used nauseous wrong, which I absolutely hate. He did it twice. The word is nauseated. Not nauseous. Nauseated. If something is nauseous, it makes you feel nauseated; you are not nauseous unless, I suppose, you have been brutally tortured and had your limbs ripped off.

Anyway, if the above samples of Atonement do not annoy you (they annoy me SO MUCH), then you might enjoy it, but otherwise you will be screaming GET TO THE POINT as Ian McEwan goes on for two pages about the phenomenon of making each other laugh by glancing over at each other when something is funny (everyone knows about that, Ian McEwan! I don’t need to read the entire history of Leon and Cecilia’s relationship to make me believe that a brother and a sister might have a similar sense of humor!); and then when your flatmates start having an argument in the kitchen you will not be at your peacemaking best and might say something imprudent that will completely irritate one of them.

(I didn’t, though. I was the essence of grace and calm.)

  • Cam

    Hi Jenny. I just found your blog (via Ella @ Box of Books). Given what you said about Atonement I’m wondering what qualifies a book to be tagged ‘Books I loathed’? I’ve now read 3 McEwan books, all torturous experiences. Yes, he is a great observer of human nature, but GET ON WITH IT. While reading Atonement I kept thinking: “and when is he going to write about neurology?” Ah — 3 different times: Emily’s headaches, the dying French soldier (at least I remember that from the movie but I think I blocked it from my brain after reading), and Briony’s declining health as an old woman. Arghhhhh. Oh I’m so impressed that he could do research and use it in 3 books! At least there is a plot in Atonement and something of one in Saturday. I’d recommend that you skip Chesil Beach.

  • jennysbooks

    I suppose I feel guilty tagging things as being loathed. It sounds so vehement. But you’re quite right. I’ve tagged it loathed now. It’s not really fair to have only one book (and one I didn’t finish!) in that category.

    And I will absolutely skip Chesil Beach – thanks! I can’t imagine ever picking up another book by Ian McEwan again, frankly. 🙂

  • HA. What a way to describe a headache. I think McEwan’s too smart for me. I didn’t really get it and was kind of confused — what? she has a ferret in her brain? what’s he getting at there….

    Yeah, persons have recommended his fiction up to Enduring Love and avoid the later stuff but…hmmm.

  • I didn’t like it either. Didn’t care what happened to any of them!

    I’ve got you down for The Sonambulist drawing on Wed. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  • I chuckle at this review because I loved Atonement and On Chesil Beach and I dont really know why! I totally get your complaints here and yet, I was amazed at McEwan’s writing. But I won’t defend it, either.

    My mom thought Atonement was…. “wordy.” I adore my mom’s one word reviews.

  • I don’t like books with long descriptions, much less if they go on and on about the character’s thoughts on trivial things.

    I had the Atonement book lying on my bedside table, for me to read when I finished schoolwork, but as I started reading it was just so detailed that I saved it for another time. Then I watched the movie and really liked it, but then I thought ‘What? This is actually a “short” story. Do you mean in the book it gets told in so many POVs like that?’ and haven’t read it yet.

  • I just came upon this and I just thought that this book is almost entire meta, and I think all the problems with the prose and the tone and the ANNOYING BITCHES WHO DON’T STOP THINKING and the insincerity of all genuinely come from the fact that Briony, that bitch, is actually writing the thing. Which explains the faux-Lolita-wannabe writing.

  • Bill

    If you pardon my ‘French’, I thought that the whole book was a complete mindf£&k as I read the first part thinking how badly written it was, the second part a bit freaked because McEwan had deliberately written the first part badly, to show it was written by the naive Brioney, and then I slogged my way through the blood and guts of escaping Dunkirk, and was touched by the heart lifting reunions of part 3 only to be….I won’t spoil it but I’ve rarely been through such a journey. I agree with the review of Chesil Beach as it would never have been published if written by an unknown.