By Ian McEwan
I have very mixed feelings about this work. The language is beautiful, the writing is well crafted, and the story is terribly bad. No amount of vocabulary could have saved this story, though McEwan certainly tried. In fact, it felt more like the author enjoyed displaying his vocabulary more than telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, a large vocabulary is a wonderful thing but the plot should be given more prominence than it was.
When you can pull off the phrase “This pointillist approach to verisimilitude” you get bonus points in my book no matter what the rest of the book is about. The thing is that including a lot of five dollar words nearly worked in context. Briony, the main narrator, wants to be a writer. She therefore uses large words in her own head as though she’s writing a play about her life. The result is a rather detached narrative. I never really got to see Briony’s feelings about anything; I saw what she was telling herself. Briony honestly felt like a dull character because I never actually got to know her. The fact I met here when she was a thirteen year old girl did not help McEwan’s task in making her relatable. She did not feel like any teenage girl I’ve ever met. Briony just wasn’t real enough for my taste. I had a hard time caring about her.
As it turned out, I had a challenge in caring about any of the main characters. My husband can attest that I said multiple times “Why do I care about these people?” That is not a reaction you want your readers to have. My only concern for any character was if Robbie was going to survive the war or not. It was more of an intellectual exercise than a visceral reaction. I was not privy to any of the harrowing things he went through and felt no connection to him.
The plot is ostensibly about a man (Robbie) who was wrongly accused and convicted of rape, and then goes off to fight in France during WWII. That sounds interesting and gripping, right? It would be if the accusation, conviction, time served in prison, and combat in France were not all skipped over. Clearly, that’s not what the story is about. Only the in between parts are actually narrated. So what was the story really? A man trying to get home to the woman he loves? That’s possible, though his reunion with her is not discussed at all. Is it about a girl who grows into womanhood and realizes her terrible mistake? This seems more likely. The atonement referred to in the title is not Robbie’s vindication. It is Briony making amends for her mistaken identity of the man fleeing the scene for the rest of her life.
Speaking of the rest of her life, I want to take a moment to look at the ending [mild spoilers until the end of this review]. The penultimate chapter ended the story fairly well. It showed where the story would go after the book was put down and left a morose though appropriate tone in the mind. The damage that Briony has done can never be undone. It makes sense to for the melody to end on a tragic note. Then the final chapter happens and the tone completely shifts. Briony is looking back on her life after just being diagnosed with dementia. She is surrounded by friends and family and everything is as happy as can be under the circumstances. Goodbye tragedy. Goodbye any lasting consequences in this story. Hello, sappy “everything will be fine eventually”. It really, really annoyed me. Everything that the characters felt and experienced was essentially negated by the ending.
All in all, this book was ok. There is swearing in it, so if that offends you, don’t read this. The majority of the language really is beautiful though. If you want to expand your list of fifty-cent to ten dollar words, you may want to pick this up. Otherwise, I can think of other books for you to read.