Saturday, January 3, 2009

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

" which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed."

This is a story of a young writer, her imagination, and where her creativity and need to order her world took her. It is also a love story between "unequals," and it is, finally, a story of survival, of life, love, truth, and the last word. In three parts, Atonement unfolds during pre-WWII England, then during the Allies' rout from France, then it ends at the end of the author's life. There are no heroes; all of the characters are flawed, and some are more dislikeable than others, depending, I suppose, on what upsets the reader the most in general.

These are some excerpts that got me thinking, and not necessarily about the story:

"Was everyone else really as alive as she was? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance." Agreed. Getting anyone else to hear your voice is quite the daunting task.

"At that moment, the urge to be writing was stronger than any notion she had of what she might write. What she wanted was to be lost in the unfolding of an irresistible idea, to see the black thread spooling out from the end of her scratchy silver nib and coiling into words." I've been right where this character is, and although I don't have any fancy tools, I prefer to create with a pen and not a keyboard.

"They were stilled not by the astonishing fact of arrival, but by an awed state of return... [Cecilia and Robbie], in a state of expansive, tranquil joy, confronted the momentous change they had achieved. The closeness of a familiar face was not ludicrous, it was wondrous. Robbie stared at the woman, the girl he had always known, thinking the change was entirely in himself, and was as fundamental, as fundamentally biological as birth. Nothing as singular or as important had happened since the day of his birth. She returned his gaze, struck by the sense of her own transformation, and, overwhelmed by the beauty in a face which a lifetime's habit had taught her to ignore. She whispered his name with the deliberation of a child trying out the distinct sounds. When he replied with her name, it sounded like a new word--the syllables remained the same, the meaning was different. Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them with exactly the slight same emphasis on the second word, as though she had been the one to say them first. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract." Call me cynical, but only in books is a first time (let alone any time) this... poetic, profound...

"At the time, the journal preserved her dignity; she might look and behave like and live the life of a trainee nurse, but she was really an important writer in disguise." Clearly, she prefers to set her own order. The one being imposed on her doesn't do the trick, since it isn't in her control.

"The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it... She had read Virginia Woolf's The Waves three times and thought that a great transformation was being worked in human nature itself, and that only fiction, a new kind of fiction, could capture the essence of the change. To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design--this would be an artistic triumph." And now, of course, I need to go read The Waves. If an author right-out mentions another book in his own story, it's crucial. Here's the Wikipedia basics, and here is a link to the full text (in case I don't want to hunt it down from the library).

All in all, I enjoyed the read (I'd give it 4/5 stars), and am looking forward to seeing the movie sometime in the coming week.