Tuesday, August 23, 2011


By Ian McEwan

I broke a cardinal rule.

I'm a fairly disciplined individual who likes to live by a certain set of rules, most of them self-imposed (I have no idea why I seem to function better via self-discipline, but I do). I have self-imposed rules is virtually every facet of my life. It helps me stay organized. It helps me stay focused and it keeps me out of a lot of trouble I would otherwise find myself in (read: no alcohol on weekdays).

I have rules for reading. Some of them cardinal. One of my cardinal rules is that I must read every day. This is a rule I have not broken in over three years. Most days I read in the vicinity of 50-100 pages depending on how interesting the book is, font size and time. I also never leave a book unfinished, no matter how bad it is. Oddly enough, because of these rules I tend to read books quicker if they are bad. I can't set them aside or put them down, so I blast through trash as quickly as I do gems.

Another cardinal rule is that I never, ever read a book if I have already seen the movie. Like I wrote in a previous blog, I don't often go to movies, but I have seen a few along the way. I generally avoid novel adaptations figuring that I might one day like to read the book. Plus, I think that movies and novels should be mutually exclusive. Just cause a segment of the population doesn't want to take the time to read a story we should have to pander to them by making good books into sub-par movies.

But I digress.

I've seen Atonement. I can't for the life of me remember having seen it, but I have. I know I saw it because it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars a few years back and it was one of those years where I decided to watch all the nominees (before they went to ten nominees and I completely lost interest). I remember because that was the year of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, two movies I actually liked a lot and I watched them back to back. A rarity.

Despite the fact that the novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2001, I wouldn't have even bothered to pick Atonement up if I weren't so desperate. But I've been reduced to Douglas Coupland and Crime and Punishment on my bookshelf, neither of which are all that enticing. Breaking a cardinal rule and reading Atonement seemed like a better alternative to either of my other options and I figured the book would give me some insight into the characters that appeared in the movie (once I remembered the plot).

Well, it didn't really matter. Even at the end of the book I could not recall a single scene from the movie and the plot was completely unfamiliar (I don't watch movies drunk and I'm not prone to blackouts, so I'm at a loss for how this happened). In a way, I lucked out. I got a first-time read out of Atonement, and it turns out that it's a pretty decent read... if a bit plodding.

The first half of the novel center around Briony, a foolish young girl who fancies herself a writer of fairy tales and has her head firmly entrenched in her own fantasy world Through a series of tragic misunderstandings and misinterpretations, Briony mistakenly vilifies her older sister's (Cecilia) lover (Robbie) for a crime he did not commit, sending him to prison and social disgrace.

the second half of the novel fast-forwards a few years into the early days of World War II and the evacuation of Dunkirk. Briony reappears as a slightly older, slightly less foolish girl who works in London as a nurse. Robbie has spent time in prison and Cecilia has broken all ties with her family over the false accusation. Over time, Briony has realized the severity of her deception and has developed an overwhelming desire to set things straight and clear Robbie's name. At this point it's best to stop. I will not spoil the end. The plot is thin but what McEwan lacks in events he more than makes up for in emotional and psychological deconstruction.

McEwan explores the depths of some pretty intense human emotions, especially love, hate, guilt, shame, redemption and, well, atonement. It offers a wonderful introspection on the relationship between truth and fiction, love and hate as well as war and peace. McEwan balances between these dichotomies with a deft hand. It's a book deserving of the accolades it has received and a tour de force for the author. a must read for anyone who enjoys books that explore the depths of human emotions and the complexities of familial relationships.

I was truly surprised by this book and glad I broke a rule to read it. I figured it was the sort of book that would instantly hate but it turns out it is a very readable book. Perhaps I should break more of my rules.

Recommended. (Just don't see the movie. It's entirely forgettable).


nomadeye said...

On the basis of your review, I think I should read this book for myself. Luckily, I haven't seen this in movie form, so I'm in for a treat, I hope.

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