Monday, May 4, 2009

Atonement

I have been absent here for awhile. This has been partly due to my continued reading block, partly to my workload, and partly to an extended business trip. I simply haven't been reading very much. In order to stay interested...to keep as on track as I can, I've been neglecting my "required" reading...as in the things I've planned months in advance to read (ahem - Henry James, and finishing A Dance to the Music of Time) in favor of books I'm more apt to stick with to the end. Hence why I picked up Atonement.

This book is devastatingly good. The plot is good, the writing is good. The entire book hinges on Briony, a 13-year old girl (in the beginning) who likes to write stories. She sees herself as someone who is able to understand and interpret the adult world. And when she sees something out of her bedroom window, something very adult - the budding yet strained relationship between her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the charwoman's son, she thinks she understands, but she doesn't. She sees it through the lens of her stories...of her own interpretation. The situation gets worse and worse, Briony constantly misinterpreting the adult world, but thinking she understands. When Robbie gives Briony a letter to carry to her sister, he accidentally gave her the wrong one…the explicit one, which Briony of course reads. Later she catches Robbie and Cecilia in the library. She can only see Robbie as an aggressor now, and believes her sister needs "saved" from Robbie. This of course has devastating consequences when her cousin Lola is attacked at night by someone. Briony – who only sees the shadow of the perpetrator running away – assumes it had to be Robbie. First he attacked her sister, then Lola. And Lola doesn’t say anything…she knows it wasn’t Robbie, but she stays quiet since Briony is so insistent. Of course it wasn’t Robbie, but he goes to jail anyway. Cecilia wants nothing more to do with her family. And then there’s the war. Robbie dies in France and Cecilia is killed in a bombing. Because of Briony thinking she got it…by playing in the adult world that she didn’t understand, she completely changed the fate of these two people. They might have lived happily ever after if not for her.

But we’re played a trick on. That’s not what we’re told happens at first. Yes, Robbie goes to jail, and then to France, and Cecilia disowns her family and becomes a nurse. But Robbie makes it back to England, he and Cecilia are together again, and Briony agrees to tell the truth of what happened. It’s only in the end, in the epilogue of sorts that we’re told that’s not what happened at all. It’s presented that Briony wrote the text of Atonement in order to do all she could to make better what she had done. The players had died long before, but she could give them a life together, a happily ever after in her story. “I can no longer think what purpose would be served if, say, I tried to persuade my read, by direct or indirect means, that Robbie Turner died of septicemia at Bray Dunes on 1 June 1940, or that Cecilia was killed in September of the same year by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station. That I never saw them in that year. That my walk across London ended at the church on Clapham Common, and that a a cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister. That the letters the lovers wrote are in the archives of the War Museum. How could that constitute an ending?” We are given the hope that things turned out ok, and then it’s crushed.

As an adult, as someone who is able to see more from where Cecelia is coming from, I really wanted to strangle Briony. What a little brat. The little kid who believes she is “Writer”…who sees herself as a part of a world which she is not a part of…who believes in all seriousness and earnestness that she is right and smart and knowledgeable. She believes she can see or understand something about the world, as a Writer…as someone who sees the world and interprets it for others. What I question is whether or not Briony – the adult Briony – can ever atone for what she did. I don’t think you can. Her sister’s life was ruined…her sister is dead potentially because of what that child did. After it was all done there was no going back for anyone, and once the two main players were dead, there was nothing that could be done to make any of what happened better. Briony does all she can – gives them a different story than the one they had…but she can never actually atone for what she set in motion.

Often times, I prefer to see a movie version before I read the book version. Atonement is one that I wish I would have done the opposite. I got most of the emotional impact of the story with the movie, and so I wasn't able to be held in suspense...to believe that Robbie and Cecilia really did live happily ever after. I knew what was coming in the novel, and I wish I had been able to forget that.

I'm trying to get back on the reading waggon...I've been making attempts at my first Saul Bellow (Henderson the Rain King) which is good/enjoyable thus far, but I'm reading it in spurts. I'm also making various stabs at In the Heart of the Sea ...Nathaniel Philbrick's true tale of Moby Dick, and I'm also trying to get back to my Kerouac project with Dr. Sax...we'll see where I am at the end of May with all this stuff. There's just so much going on in my life right now, it's really hard to get back to reading.

2 comments:

Arukiyomi said...

"devastatingly good"? hmmm... I didn't think so. I'm rarely devastated by a book. Was that just hyperbole perhaps.

I thought it was good but flawed.

my review of said flaws is at

http://johnandsheena.co.uk/books/?p=95

Kristin said...

The book definately has flaws, but I would stick by my statement that the plot at least was devastatingly good...it was completely heartbreaking.