You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


I finally got around to listening to the audiobook of Ian McEwan's Atonement. The story begins in 1935 England, at the Tallis estate. Briony Tallis is a 13-year-old girl who is imaginative and outgoing, though a bit naive. Her sister Cecilia is five years older and has been away at Cambridge for the year. Their friend Robbie Turner is the son of their servant, and their father has supported his education ever since Robbie's father disappeared. Robbie has also been at Cambridge, but has barely acknowledged Cecilia, due to the separation of the genders as much as his strong feelings for her and his awkward and unequal relationship to her family. The issue of class is not a major issue in the book, but nevertheless it has its negative effects that are a dark thread throughout.

When Briony sees Cecilia and Robbie in the courtyard acting mysteriously, she invents her own explanation for what she has witnessed. She does not have a positive view of Robbie, and this worsens when she reads a letter that Robbie has given her to give to Cecilia. Robbie has accidentally given her a letter with a crude description of his feelings for Cecilia, so Briony becomes convinced that Robbie is a pervert. Later, when Briony sees her cousin Lola with a boy in the night, she assumes the worst and accuses Robbie of rape. Robbie spends years in prison based only on Briony's invented testimony, and becomes estranged from the whole Tallis family. Only Cecilia, seeing through Briony's mistake, maintains his friendship.

The story jumps forward five years to Robbie in the army in France, retreating to the coast with the German army on their heels. Robbie witnesses death and destruction, and he must make choices regarding his survival and his duty. One such choice is when he and his two friends rescue an English pilot who is being mobbed by angry soldiers accusing him of not protecting them. Here Robbie's actions stand in stark contrast to the actions made against him when he was falsely accused. He seems determined that others will not suffer needlessly. Robbie makes it out of France and back to England where he reunites with Cecily. Briony, now eighteen and a nursing student, must suddenly take care of a flood of wounded English soldiers. She takes a moment to visit Cecilia and spends an awkward time with her and Robbie. Briony is contrite about her role in Robbie's suffering but does not know how to make amends.

The last part is where the novel goes from being a good story to being an inventive literary novel. It is sixty years later and Briony is a successful author. She is looking back on her life and the wrong that she did to Robbie and Cecilia. She still does not know how she could fix things, but at least she understands the circumstances and what led her to her incorrect assumptions. In her wish to make it up to Robbie, we see that the novel itself is her creation. It is more than a need to air the truth after decades: the novel becomes an alternate story for Robbie with a better ending. The story is reflective and reflexive, the author McEwan has inserted Briony as another author between himself and the text. Briony stands in as the author's alter ego, and is able in the text to comment on the text itself. It is the finest form of paying back to the characters, as she actually rewrites the story to create a happy ending that never could have been. We see Briony's transformation from a naive and self-important girl to graceful woman who has not forgotten her biggest mistake. McEwan's writing is already good enough; we live inside the three major characters and feel their emotions and understand their point of view. The story is filled with scenes and characters that all contribute to make a complete story. The reflection at the end is more than a summary or commentary of the rest of the story; it creates a new sense of what is possible. The novel is book-ended by a play within a play--Briony's creation--providing the lens with which to view the story. It is enjoyable on all layers. A

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