My Frustrations with Ian McEwan’s Atonement

I don’t know about you, but I always have a collection of unread books on my shelves, picked up from used book stores or library sales. I always intend to get to them when I buy them, but sometimes they languish. Such was the case with a book by Ian McEwan, Atonement. I actually have two of his books on my shelves (the other is Saturday), but about a month ago a friend of mine recommended him as an author generally, and Atonement in particular, so I pulled the volume down and put it in the summer reading list stack.

On one hand, I should have good things to say about this book: I read it quickly, in two non-consecutive days, and so I can fairly say that I found it compelling. Additionally, McEwan’s prose itself is rendered with remarkable skill: it is evocative, with pitch-perfect tone. Despite my many frustrations with this novel, his writing alone makes me think that I’ll still get around to reading Saturday someday.

But oh, those frustrations. There were a few. Most notably how much I hated the main character of the book (I don’t think I, as the reader, was supposed to, no), but we’ll get to her in a moment.

Firstly, McEwan is a writer writing about writing in many parts of this novel, which is a pet peeve of mine. The above-mentioned main character begins to write little stories at the age of 10 (we see her primarily pursuing this hobby at 13). This is fair enough — I think that is about when kids who are so inclined start writing. But it is not merely a part of her character outline that she writes stories; rather, McEwan takes the opportunity to rhapsodize about the craft of storytelling. I’m exaggerating only slightly with my snarky italics. The problem with this sort of going on about the profound art of writing stories is that it’s self-aggrandizing horseshit. It is one thing to describe a character as one who likes to construct fiction, and to tease out what that might imply about that character: they have a tendency to live in their own mind; they are, perhaps, particularly observant; they are, perhaps, abstractly empathetic, by which I mean, while they can easily suss out the feelings and predict the (re)actions of others, they nonetheless are at a remove from other people, seeing others as objects of consideration rather than fellow subjects in the world. These are just my thoughts on the subject, perhaps others’ would be different, but my point is, it’s not a bad project for an author per se to make a character a writer. But there is some line past which the belaboring of the craft of storytelling becomes a reflection not on the writer character but on the author, and oh my, what a god of imagination he or she can be! In short, it becomes obnoxious, because all of the author’s reflections on the writer character and their pursuit of writing as an art are necessarily reflections on the author him/herself as artist.

I find this especially obnoxious because, as a failed writer myself, let me dispel a little conceit: writing is not a mystical labor of godlike intuition and profoundly creative compulsion. Being a writer requires natural talent, yes, and when one really feels inspired to write, doing so can be exciting and rewarding. But being a writer also requires practice, tedium, and, frankly, drudgery. Most writers are not successful; I certainly wasn’t. Being a writer is also a lot of luck, like any career in the fine arts. Most of the time, writing is just staring at drafts in frustration, and, let’s be honest, most writing doesn’t contain blinding insights into the human condition. It’s a skilled art, but its end result is usually not much more than an entertainment for consumers, and while it can rarely transcend that to become Important, that moment of importance is even still a brief brief moment in the life of a writer overall.

So basically, let’s take the self-importance down a few dozen pegs, OK Ian?

Moving on. The book itself as it’s crafted presented me with some quandaries. For one, the writing, although lovely, occasionally turns towards the … improbable. Take this passage:

“The silence hissed in her ears and her vision was faintly distorted — her hands in her lap appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider at the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in her finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self — was it her soul? — which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.”

Now that sounds just lovely. But seriously, what the fuck? Go back. Read the passage again. In the first place, these are the supposed musings of a sheltered 13-year-old — really? For another, 5 demerits for describing the human hand as a “fleshy spider” at the end of one’s arm and “a machine for gripping”. Additionally, there is something just too precious about looking for one’s soul(!) in the “crest” of one’s intention to move a finger. This looking for the “real self” (NB: dear fellow writers, if you find yourself musing about the “real self”, stop, take a nap, and come back to reconsider) by navel-gazing one’s own reflexes is writerly and unrealistic — this is not how humans, even very thoughtful, precocious humans, consider the world, and especially not in such abstract language.

But it sounds nice! It sounds … deep. This sort of tipping into absurdity is a problem McEwan has occasionally, it would seem.

Another problem with the way the novel is crafted: its engagement with World War II left me puzzled. Let me explain. The novel happens in three parts. The first occurs in 1935, on a single day and night during which we are eloquently introduced to a family and its moving parts (including that main character, the 13-year-old, whom I dislike so much), as they throw a small garden party in midsummer at their quasi-aristocratic British estate. This makes up the first half of the book or so (my copy is 350 pages), and it builds slowly, acquainting us with the characters of the novel until it concludes with an event the consequences of which play out in parts two and three. Part two of the book is set four years later; one of the characters is retreating from the Germans in northern France. I have sat and tried to think of why McEwan decided to stage this novel, at least in part, in battle in WWII. In the first place, the book did not seem to readily provide the answer to this question on its own. Don’t misunderstand, the book makes chronological sense and the plot is adequately tied to the setting, but: war is a loaded topic, McEwan is describing a loaded historical moment, and surely an author wouldn’t deploy such a time casually, for shits and giggles. I have considered that the transition from prewar to wartime Britain might usefully reflect on the maturation of the novel’s central character (the third part of the book takes place in London in 1940), and might parallel in some way the traumas and the strippings away of Briony’s (my loathed 13-year-old’s) adolescence, particularly in light of her crimes in the conclusion of Part One. (We’ll get there!) But that explains only the trajectory of the first and the third parts of the novel; the second part is set squarely in war-torn France as British forces fall back in hasty retreat, and again, this setting and this historical context seem too full, too fraught, to be deployed without larger symbolic purpose. One of the characters is at war, and it’s a trial for him, surely. But is that enough to justify 100 pages of disgraced battlefield? I kept looking for something that I don’t think was there, a significance the reader anticipates but is never rendered up. I am left with this feeling that McEwan — whom one can tell researched this portion of the novel ruthlessly for historical accuracy — wrote about the flight to Dunkirk because he thought it would be neat; I challenge this as a good decision, or, at least, as a fully realized component of the novel. McEwan left a lot on the field in this portion of the book.

Finally, let me come to Briony herself. To begin with, I should confess that books, movies, and television shows that are primarily about children and their concerns bore me. I have no desire to revisit the growing pains of my own youth, and I never found the reiteration of such struggles in art to be particularly useful or engaging for the adult version of myself. Again, frankly, I find children boring. But the recommender of this book does also, and so I took it on faith that McEwan must be doing something different in rendering youth.

Not really. Oh, how I hated Briony. The character as a young teen is precociously self-assured despite being so breathtakingly naive that I could not stop myself from spontaneously composing dialogue in my mind for the other characters to utter for the sheer purpose of humiliating Briony. She is also self-important and self-involved to the point of narcissism. These are deep character flaws, and yet they go unremarked upon by other characters or the author. And these flaws are not harmless — by the end of the first part of the book, her undeserved conceit — and her willingness to lie (though the character herself refuses to own up to the fact that she was lying, throughout the entire book, rather calling herself confused) — ruin the lives of a family friend and her own sister.

In the third part of the book, Briony is 18, but still cowardly, still apparently unclear as to the full dimensions of her own actions in the world, and, to me, still irritating for all that. But at this point in the book, I perked up a bit, as there seemed to be some hope for her — she seemed to be finally maturing, finally realizing her flaws. But then comes an epilogue. I don’t spoil much to tell you that it turns out a conceit of the book is that it is actually a non-fiction novel written by Briony, whom we encounter again in a first-person epilogue supposedly written in her late 70s. Still self-involved, still prattling about writing, the elder version of Briony is revealed to be profoundly uncharitable in her judgments of others, despite how much charity the forgiveness of her own young life requires. I was especially shocked by Briony’s lack of charity towards the character of her slightly older cousin (now an old woman as well) who was — again, I don’t spoil much here — a rape victim at 15. This ugly misogyny could be as much the unconscious fault of McEwan as of the character Briony, I couldn’t say for sure. But regardless, it’s a nasty note to bring the character out on.

And speaking of nasty, the “author” herself feels compelled in the final pages of the book to ruin its ending for “her” readers, out of what comes off as a selfish need to fulfill her own supposed obligations to truth, a compulsion I found laughably undeserving of the reader’s consideration; Briony, you have not earned the right to claim that you value truth above all else, or to be its defender in spite of its unpleasantness.

Long story short, I hated this bitch her whole life long. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think I was supposed to — I don’t think it was one of those books. So, you know, given that, that’s a problem, right? It actually might have been interesting if I thought I was supposed to hate Briony, given that the book is supposedly a true story written by her: the psychological implications of that are noteworthy. But even if that is the case, the revelation that the book is patially autobiographical comes too late, and is not given enough space on the page, for the reader to really work through those potential psychological implications. So while I don’t think I’m supposed to hate Briony, even if I am, the book still fails to give that idea the space and time it needs to really work on the reader’s experience with the character, assuming that forcing the reader to fully flip flop their understanding of a book after it’s already over is a cheap trick. (Which it is.)

Oh, Lordy, Ian McEwan. I don’t know what to say. McEwan’s writing talent is self-evident (not just in his prose, but in his composition’s balance and momentum, his characterizations, and his emotional acuity). But as I couldn’t stop myself from going on about above, this novel so frustrated me that I don’t know if I can call this a good book or not. I’ll leave it for you to decide. As I said, I will probably take on Saturday in the not-so-distant future, if you want to consider that. I hope there are no children in that one.

10 thoughts on “My Frustrations with Ian McEwan’s Atonement

  1. This book sounds like a chore. You have much more tolerance for reading than I do. Despite my writerly ambitions, I am hugely intolerant of any writing that irritates me in the slightest, and I’m not adverse to putting books down.

    What sort of interplay does all this have with the title? What is being atoned for if she’s a mean bitch throughout the book?

  2. Well, she’s a mean bitch who makes false accusations. I didn’t want to give the entire plot away. As I said, I don’t know if most people who read this book would hate her as much as I did — that aspect of the critique might be about me as a reader as much as about the character. But my points about the book’s structure and McEwan’s writing stand regardless of the reader, I believe.

    As I said, while I was very frustrated, I also wanted to know what happened next — there’s something to be said for that. I’m pretty tolerant of books, if for no other reason than I know if I finish a book that’s causing me a lot of consternation, I can at least get a big blog out of it. The last book I didn’t finish was a large single-volume history of Greece. The subject matter was — I think — interesting. But goddamn if the author didn’t manage to bog it down in the most pedantic, dry, mind-numbing writing imaginable. I just couldn’t finish it; it was too boring.

    That’s usually the only thing that’ll make me give up on a book — if it’s boring. And my reading experience with Atonement certainly wasn’t boring.

  3. I have not read it but did see the movie and I don’t think I ever cared for the girl…I should pick it up and read it and see how it compares to the film.

  4. I couldn’t agree with Sabrina more Briony is an insufferable character. At one point I was so irritated by her follies that I decided to put down the book. The only reason I completed the book was because I saw the audiobook at the library and I thought why not I have some time to kill while stuck in my car (I really hate to leave a book unfinished). Needless to say I just ended up pissed off in traffic and wondering why it all had to end that way. I don’t need a happy ending, but in the case of this book I really needed something that seemed like atonement. Yes, I know a major point of the story is that there are times you cannot atone for your actions, but I still needed more. He made her too unlikeable, too conceited, and too self righteous. I even tried to diminish my disdain for the book by watching the movie ( I love movies), but I hated that too (I may have been biased by the book). For fear of a repeat incident I have avoided his books and cringed at the very idea of reading another book by him. It really is a pity because I like his writing style and some of the issues he tries to address.

  5. I’m glad I’m not alone in this, since the reviews for this book were all like “MCEWAN IS A GENIUS!” and I felt like I was failing at reading or something!

  6. I think you’re too generous to McEwan. I personally find his writing style utterly pretentious.

    I agree however that Briony is the most unsympathetic character of all time.

    In this book there is no plot, there are no characters, and there sure as hell isn’t any atonement. You’re right, comments of the ilk McEwan is a genius, really test your sanity.

  7. I think you have mistaken the entire purpose of the book. Since Briony is the author, and her writing of the book is her act of Atonement for ruining the lives of her sister and Robbie, she is supposed to be somewhat hated, she makes herself the villain as part of her atonement. This doesn’t mean I don’t hate her, I do. As much for her cowardice as for her conceit. But it’s part of the experience of the book. She wants to be hated because it increases her punishment, and thus makes the fact that she survived all the people she hurt a little less relevant because she lived in suffering and guilt.
    That being said, her hate of Lola is perfectly justified. There is no certainty that Lola was in fact raped, it could have just as easily been consensual and she was just crying and scared not because a man took her by force, but because she was found out. But regardless of whether or not she consented to sleeping with Paul, she used the relations between them to get him to marry her, and not only remove all stain from her person, because he would remain the only man to bed her, she also managed to marry a rich man who became even richer by exploiting the war. All at the expense of Robbie. Because they knew far better than Briony who the culprit really was. Briony had been influenced by her observances throughout the rest of the day – the scene by the fountain, Robbie’s note, the encounter between Robbie and Cecilia by the library – confused by something she did not yet understand, as well as the class prejudices of the day and her own black and white sense of morality. All this, combined with her overactive imagination, led her to believe that it was Robbie, but Lola and Paul knew very well that Paul was the alleged rapists and they not only remained silent, but led a life seemingly free of guilt. I think that if you look again, you can see that as hateful as Briony is, Lola is just as hateful, perhaps even more.
    Finally, the book is about the act of writing, but not entirely in the sense of the glorification of writing, but rather the effect that fiction can have on our lives. Briony’s entire sense of morality is based upon the upper middle class stories that she reads. These stories, combined with a general naivete, lead her to assume Robbie as the villain and make the greatest mistake of her life. In the end, it is with fiction that she tries to redeem herself, if only slightly. She has the power to give those she hurt the happily ever after that she took from them, and perhaps, if her story survives long enough, the truth will be forgotten and the lives she crafted for them forever remembered, because fiction has at times the power to transcend. Furthermore, she will expose the real culprits, Lola and Paul Marshall, and herself.

  8. I hated the book and the parts that were about Briony. I skipped most of her childish fantasies for I just couldn’t read that. I skipped how she historically framed Robbie, but the went back to painfully read the pages. I had to. Such naivatee and immaturity! I somehow knew that Briony was the author, but the ending? She does not get my atonement for killing Robbie with some infection and Cecilia with bombs.

  9. A few years down the road…I’ve avoided this book (and movie) and McEwen in general (I had picked up that as a writer, he would be Oh So Self-Involved and Writerly), but saw a cheap audio cassette set at the used bookshop so I bought it to pass the time while driving. 40 minutes into it, I hate the book, I hate Briony, I’m not interested in yet another British family on the cusp of WW2. (Much prefer the Cazalets, if one wants to dip into that over-frequented pool one more time). I gave the cassette set back to the bookstore without even asking for a credit. My favorite British writing these days comes from … Canada! Mistry, Davies, et al.

  10. I understand the point of view of Amanda in the comments. However, understanding all of this does not help me at all. To be honest, I feel that the ending (last page) destroyed something inside me forever. I regret that I have read this book. I am not naive, I know there is no enough and balanced justice, fulfillment etc. in the world. But what hurts me the most: Robbie and Cecilia had only SEVERAL MINUTES of happiness together in their WHOLE LIVES. Everything later on was a tragedy, pain, loneliness and longing until they died. I do blame Mr McEwan for being not a human being but a monster. As he has written himself that “a writer is a god” for his characters – so my question here is: what kind of god he is then for his characters? He took everything away from them and gave them literally nothing. Not some leftovers, no. Nothing. Is wanting to write a prominent novel “with a message” a sufficient excuse for the writers to traumatize their readers with so deep lack of balance?…

    And it is not that I am all against sad endings in books. I can cry and move on, just as normal people do in their lives with true problems. But this?! I keep asking myself what I read this book for, what it was supposed to give me? I feel this story is just sad and nothing more. As you have mentioned above – after pages of atrocious war scenes and ghastly hospital scenes, you come only to realization that Briony did not change or maturate at all, even after years in the epilogue, and it seems the other characters did not either – which is simply unnatural! No human being remains the same after 50 years! In the real life all such events change people, they move forward more experienced, wiser (and I would say: more human). So if you wish for make yourself very miserable (and angry), you should read the book, but do not expect anything else/more in it, because there is nothing more in this story at all – it is just indescribably sad. And most probably it will ruin your day.

    In one thing Mr McEwan was right: there is no forgiveness for the writers. And I am not going to forgive you Mr McEwan for what you did to me (and your characters).

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