TRP: Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In which we learn that lying is bad. Or that kids don’t understand adults. Or that reality is subjective. Wait, what?

Let me start by saying up front that Atonement is a book for adults. Much of the conflict in this novel revolves around someone being accused of rape and pedophilia, and the accusations pointed towards this character are all the more poignant in contrast with the genuine love he expresses physically (and appropriately, though extramaritally). However, this book isn’t really about sex. This book is about, oh, a lot of things, including atonement, as the title suggests, and it’s those other things and the difficult questions they raise that make this book better for mature (or maturing) readers than for those unprepared to face ambiguity.

I loved this book because of the questions it raised, and I’m sure more would become apparent on rereading. One question that caught me was, if you’ve influenced someone’s life negatively, either accidentally or purposefully (one of the great ambiguities of the novel, imho. Clearly his main accuser doesn’t understand what’s going on, and yet she knows, on some level, that she’s not telling the whole truth…), how can you ever make that right? Is atonement even possible? I know someone wrongfully accused of a heinous crime, so of course I thought of this person, but I think this line of questioning applies equally well to someone with a life as mundane as my own. There are some things we do that we just can’t make right on our own, I don’t think. I’ve said before on this blog that I was a really mean older sister, and it’s due primarily to my sister’s willingness to forgive and look to the future that we’re able to have a good relationship, or any relationship at all. In Atonement, on the other hand, the accuser attempts to make things right, but is never overtly forgiven. The implication is that she dies without truly reconciling with those she’s wronged. If we attempt to make up for the things we do wrong, how do we know when our efforts are enough? As a person of faith, I’m well aware of some plausible answers to these questions, but the questions are worth reconsidering.

Asking really good questions isn’t the only wonderful thing about this book. I absolutely love McEwan’s use of (an) unreliable narrator(s). Poe was a master of this, but McEwan’s subtlety makes Poe look like someone trying to decorate a cake by punching it. Really, how many narrators are we dealing with here? How do we know they’re telling the truth? Since the conflict is based on a lie or willful misunderstanding (maybe), discerning truth is a major theme in this novel. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt rests on this theme, and like Doubt, whether or not the accused “really did it” is beside the point. The point is, how do you know? And is “knowing,” is certainty, really all that helpful, or are there occasions in which certainty blocks truth? Furthermore, how important is it that we know what “really” happened?

Atonement has so much good stuff in it that I felt winded when I put it down. You remember, perhaps, that feeling after you finished your college entrance exams (ACT, SAT, or, heaven help you, any form of standardized pre-grad school test), and your brain had turned into particularly runny oatmeal? Or maybe you’ve had to give a lot of blood for whatever reason, and even after you were proclaimed good to go, you found yourself at the grocery store, standing in the frozen food aisle utterly baffled by the many chopped broccoli options available to you? That is how I felt after finishing Atonement. Maybe I’m showing my idiocy here, but I will definitely need to read it again to understand it better. If any of you readers have English papers to write, this would be a good text to use as a primary source. More than that, it’s just a really good read, sex, ambiguity, oatmeal brain, and all.

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