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As the Academy braces itself for the movie version of Ian McEwan’s 2001 best seller, Willam takes a look at the novel that inspired it:


Unforgiven, a review of Atonement, by Ian McEwan (2001)

First off, please forgive me, as I am typing this review on a European keyboard, which is essentially like some precocious office wag popping out and swapping half-a-dozen keys out of your keyboard right as you’re trying to respond with a hearty “yes” to an email from one of those nice Nigerian fellows who just needs a bit of cash to free up several millions from his local bank.

Anyway, so I’m writing you today from the Brussels Airport to tell you what I thought of the oft-praised novel by Ian McEwan, called Atonement, due later this year as one of those VERY IMPORTANT LITERARY ADAPTATIONS that we all optimistically go out to watch, only to be crushingly disappointed. But still wins an Oscar for “most handsomely-filmed pseudo-intellectual trifle of the year” (c.f., The English Patient).

I’d avoided McEwan for years for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is I lumped him in the same category as Martin Amis and Graham Swift, i.e., overpraised, under-talented modern British writers more noteable for their wit, bonhomie and celebrity than actual writing prowess. In the wake of a friend’s recent death, I decided to finally give Atonement a try.

I was not disappointed.

By that, I mean it was every bit as disappointing a novel as I expected.

The story is simple enough, beginning brightly with a tightly-focused and absorbing description of a precocious, artistic child (the
annoyingly-named Briony) and an engaging young man (Robbie), an outsider, son of a cleaning lady and a caretaker, joining the girl’s broader family orbit through his friendship with her older sister.

[Note: I contend that Alan Hollinghurst borrowed liberally from this setup to make his far superior book, The Line of Beauty (2004, adapted for television in 2006). McEwan, in the meantime, has been accused of plagarizing from someone else’s autobiography or life, or something. Who cares? Not I!]

Briony is quickly established as a nascent literary talent, writing and reading to the family her fantastical short stories (which I’m
sure would have been more fun to read than this novel) – indeed, driven to create to maintain the attention of her family, especially her glamorous brother Leon. On the occasion of a much-anticipated family gathering at their country estate, she decides to finally win the heart of her beloved Leon by writing a play. Robbie, in the meantime, is trying to reconcile his growing desire to transform his friendship with the siblings into love from Cecilia.

In a moment of madness, Robbie writes an explicit sexual come-on in a note confessing his deeper feelings for Cecilia. Poor boot-maker’s son (what-ever) and his love for the vacuous tosspot daughter of fabulous wealth – what could be nobler? He puts that note aside and re-writes a cleaner version, and, yeah, can you see where this is going? Oh, but wait, there’s more! He inadvertently gives his inadvertent note to Briony to deliver to Cecilia, who, advertently reads it, and, I’m already bored typing this. Suffice it to say that there’s even more fun to be had, with a child rapist and a war profiteer, and then a war, a time-jump and Briony’s desperate efforts to atone for her horrible transgression against Robbie and Cecilia, and parallels to a real-life child-rapist who married his victim and became big deals in the British upper class! Wheeeee!

So, you have the quintessentially British tale of the poor outsider, noble but of low birth, who, through luck and pluck becomes beloved of a younger noble and is welcomed into high society, only to be exposed for something NOT REALLY HIS FAULT and cast out with horrifying personal consequences as the richies close ranks and move on unpreturbed.

Briony, whom I’m guessing is supposed to be a somewhat sympathetic facet of the author’s personality (I would mention something about Terry Gilliam here, but there’s no real point to it), comes across as shrill, hysterical and annoying, both as a child, and later as a pentitent. Robbie, in the meantime, is reduced to a pathetic figure, unable to take the simple actions that could save him, because the system is just like that, innit? McEwan, in the meantime, pulls off a double cop-out, using a massive time-jump to avoid having to fully sketch the scale of the misfortune that befell Robbie (perhaps it bored him attempting to write it as much as it annoyed me reading the run up to it?), and also throws the automatically ennobling and TRAGIC HISTORICAL EVENT of the Second World War to make us see that Briony’s renounciation of her family and enrollement as the lowest rank of war nurse makes her vapid shittiness somehow forgivable.

I really wanted to like this novel, but instead felt cheated, as though McEwan lazily shirked the duty of fully realizing the growth of
Briony and the tragedy of Robbie and Cecilia; unwilling to bear the burden of a fully-realized novel of real emotional impact (c.f., Never Let Me Go). The finely realized tragic arcs of Ishiguro’s characters are far more compelling than the fates of the empty drones of this badly-realized trifle. To paraphrase noted humorist David Chapelle, I wish I had two more hands so I could give this novel four thumbs down.