Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement by [McEwan, Ian]

I finished reading Atonement last week. It moved me to tears, which surprised me as I knew the story, having read it some years ago and I’d watched the film last weekend. I have written before that I am often disappointed seeing the film of a book and I think TJ  in his comment identified my problem when he said that he likes to keep his own images of characters and settings in his head, rather than some cinematographer’s. That is just how I feel. I also don’t like it when the film moves too far away from the book.

In this case the film is mostly faithful to the book, with minor alterations, except for the ending. I prefer the book’s ending. I don’t want to write too much about the plot because if you haven’t read the book or seen the film I don’t want to spoil it by giving away too much.

In my view the book is superior overall to the film. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, which that year was won by Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (which I couldn’t read beyond the first chapter – maybe I should have another go?). It’s a complex story, split into four parts and told from several points of view. In both the book and the film we see different versions of the same events, which adds depth and introduces uncertainty and ambiguity about what actually happened.

It begins on a hot day in the summer of 1935 when Briony, then aged thirteen witnesses an event between her older sister Cecelia and her childhood friend Robbie that changed all three of their lives. It’s a captivating story of the use of imagination, shame and forgiveness, love, war and class-consciousness in England in the twentieth century. The depiction of the Second World War is both horrifying and emotional as British troops were withdrawn from France in 1940.

As well as being a love story and a war novel it’s also a mystery and a reflection on society and writing and writers. Briony when writing her novel based on the initial incident considers that:

The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern pyschology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels would no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer would a Mozart symphony. It was though, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it. … To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design – this would be an artistic triumph.

As indicated in this quotation Briony is an admirer of Virginia Woolf and stream-of-consciousness writing, and her novel is rejected by the editor who considered it “owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs Woolf.”   Her novel draws on what she saw as a child, which she hadn’t understood. Her imagination takes over providing her with a version of events that may or may not be right. She becomes confused and as she matures begins to reflect that what she “knew” may not have been what really happened.

I like the way McEwan interweaves the story, with its vividly-drawn characters and harrowing descriptions of war with reflections on the process of writing and the interpretation of novels. I found it a thought-provoking book with several layers. I’ve read several of his books and I think this one, along with Enduring Love, is my favourite.

Sunday Salon – Currently Reading

For today’s Sunday Salon I’m writing about books I have on the go at the moment, some of which are listed in the sidebar. I really should remove Les Miserables from the list, as I’ve not read any of it for a couple of weeks now, but I’m a good way into each of the other books, apart from Atonement. I added this yesterday, despite having other books that I’ve already started or planned to read.

I just have to re-read Atonement, a book I first read about five or six years ago, because of the Booking Through Thursday post on Books versus Movies. I mentioned I hadn’t seen the film of the book and was a bit hesitant to do so because generally I don’t enjoy a film after reading the book. See here for my reasons. Quite by chance the film was available and I watched it on BT Vision. I thought it didn’t start as the book started so I got the book off the shelf and found that I can’t trust my memory. I’d remembered the start as the incident that triggered the story and had forgotten the opening scenes – the beginning of the book and the film are the same! So now, of course I just have to read the book again. I have a suspicion that the book ended differently too, but now I’m not sure how reliable my memory of that is either.

I’ve been reconsidering my opinions about books versus movies. Because I watched the film on TV I could stop and rewind and play again – I watched it twice. This is a bit like reading a book; you can watch it in chunks, like reading chapters and you can go back over parts you weren’t sure of (or fell asleep in). I enjoyed the film and I’m glad I watched it at home, even though you don’t get that all-encompassing atmosphere of the cinema – the dark auditorium and that enormous screen that you can’t watch both sides at once. But then you don’t get the annoying presence of other people – crunching sweets, rustling bags, pushing past when they leave their seats and crossing in front of the screen, or even worse talking.

There is so much more detail in a book, as inevitably events are condensed in a film. I was confused watching Atonement at the beginning. Why were they rushing about and talking so quickly, hardly opening their mouths? Why did Cecelia dash to the fountain to fill the vase with water instead of going to the kitchen? I’ve only read the first few chapters of the book up to now, but it is all so much clearer in the book and so enjoyable to read. Despite these niggles I was completely engrossed in the film; the tension and emotion of it all, capturing the pre-war mood in contrast to the stark realism of the war years.

I also think it makes a difference to me if I see a film soon after I’ve read the book and I can remember the details. This happened when I watched the BBC’s version of Cranford, which really was a version and not the ‘real’ thing. The acting was superb and the settings were lovely, but the stories were an amalgamation of other books by Elizabeth Gaskell and the scriptwriter’s own inventions and because I’d just finished reading Cranford a few days before the first episode I was constantly identifying each strand. It was most distracting and irritating. I wrote more about this here and here .

So watching Atonement, the film has made me want to re-read the book, completely wrecking my reading plans.  I’ll be reading that today and not the others listed in the sidebar or even these other books, which I’m planning to read:

  • Down To a Sunless Sea by Matthias B Freese. I’ve read two of the short stories in this book.
  • The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. I’ve read the Prologue.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I’ve been meaning to read this ever since I finished Tom Sawyer.
  • The Seven Dials Murder by Agatha Christie. I thought I’d read some of her books after watching the last Dr Who episode.
  • The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters – thanks to Simon’s review.