Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review: Better Late Than Never

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Ian McEwan’s Atonement is old news at this point in time. Very old news. Regardless, I am one of the few that has never seen the movie, read the book, nor read any reviews about it, so my knowledge of the story upon picking up the novel was embarrassingly rudimentary. I barely had familiarity of the plot and luckily was not tainted by the movie to the point of picturing the faces of the actors while reading. Despite the fact that everyone else in the world probably knows this story, I am going to review it anyway–partly because I like writing reviews so that I myself remember what I read, and partly because there may be some other lost soul on the planet that is as oblivious as I.

Thirteen year old Briony Tallis, aspiring writer, thinks she’s a lot older than one barely out of her preteens. But as she witnesses the flirtatious relationship between her older sister, Cecilia, and the son of their servant, Robbie Turner, in the summer of 1935, she cannot fully grasp the complexities of adult relationships. Her imagination takes control and she tells a lie that wrongly accuses Robbie of rape. The rest of the novel follows the repercussions of Briony’s crime, spanning from World War II to the end of the twentieth century.
McEwan has been celebrated for his ability to tap into human psychology, citing this book in particular. While I believe that to be true, I thought that the organization of this novel detracted from the full emotional impact of Briony’s actions. The story is told in three “books” that are so different, I found it hard to remember they were related–the first book gives first hand accounts of the fateful summer from various perspectives, and, boy, does it start out slow; the second book tells the story of Robbie during the war; the third book describes Briony’s work as a nurse during the war, five years after the incident. The novel then ends with a short chapter of Briony’s perspective from 1999, serving as the story’s conclusion.
I can understand why McEwan is praised for his understanding of the human psyche, especially that of a thirteen-year-old girl. While Book One gives the backdrop to the story, Books Two and Three serve the sole purpose of demonstrating how Briony’s actions affect those that were involved, both situationally and psychologically. Cecilia and Robbie try and maintain a relationship during the war, and Briony tries to reconcile with her sister. McEwan does a good job of illustrating how much of an effect one small detail can have, though it takes many pages in each book before the incident is even referenced.
Overall, I wasn’t too impressed by the story, and, though McEwan does carefully detail emotion, I wasn’t blown away by it like most reviewers seem to be. The whole time I was reading, I was actually considering how the story would be edited for the silver screen–how the timeline would be adjusted, how Cecilia would play a bigger role for Kiera Knightly screen time. However, the last small chapter of the novel, the one written by Briony in 1999, is definitely the most important part of this story. After finishing the book, I could genuinely praise McEwan for his originality and for writing a brief ending that truly makes the reader think.

1 comment:

Salvatore said…

This is one of my least favourite Ian McEwan novels ('In the Comfort of Strangers' is particularly bad). There's something about it that's too grand, too period piece, too conventional – which is somewhat unlike him. It wasn't difficult to figure out the plan of attack McEwan was setting up in this novel.

The psychological aspect of what stimulates the human mind is there, but I think there's something lacking. 'Enduring Love', 'On Chesil Beach', and even 'Amsterdam' I think outshine this work.