Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reading pleasures - *Atonement*

I just finished the latest book on the summer list, Atonement by Ian McEwan, and I have to say, it was incredible. It's really thoughtful and interesting plotwise, and even more so thinking about narrative strategy. I was pretty much caught up in the plot from early on, but then totally taken by surprise by the final section, which takes place in the present.

Basically, the book covers three periods: a couple of days in 1935 at the home of a wealthy family outside of London, then a short period in 1940, as one of the characters in the British Expeditionary Force tries to get to Dunkirk to evacuate, and a longer period during which another character trains as a student nurse, and finally a family reunion in 1999.

At first it's sort of hard to tell who the main character is, because the novel plays with points of view and moves around, so that there's sort of a balance between three main characters. That section feels very Virginia Woolf-ish to me, in the best possible way. It took me a while to figure out the timing, because the opening had a sort of broad feel to me, as if it could have been any time from the 19th or early 20th century, but I may just be less sensitive to some time stuff, or have been distracted or something.

The final section is absolutely stunning, and made me think back to the first and second sections, both to question my reading of the narrative, and wonderfully, to open up the narrative itself. It did a great job of getting across the level of fantasy in something that might be purported to be factual, without ever really getting at factuality. There's this great little section where the narrator at that point is talking about a letter she got pointing out factual details about WWII military nomenclature and such, and about how important such details are to creating a narrative, even though the whole of the narrative might not be factual at all, but just supposition.

Summer reading reminds me of why I wanted to study English in the first place; I never intended when I started back to school to be an early modernist, much less to study Shakespeare. Nope. I was going to do 20th century American and British novels. Things changed, though, when I started taking classes, not because I didn't like novels, but because I had incredible Shakespeare and Chaucer profs.

It's odd to think back, how illogical on some level my choice was, happy, but illogical. If I'd had the luck to have a couple of profs for my first novels courses who were feminist, or even just not really masculinist, who taught books by women (well--one tried, though), or were a bit more interesting to me in their approaches, who knows, maybe I'd be Woolfian or something instead of Bardiac?

I got an email from my Mom today, with a couple lines from a Shakespearean sonnet, asking about one of the words. So I answered, and then started talking about the sonnet, which really is one of those stunners he turned out so often. And even though I was just trying to suggest some points that might be interesting in the sonnet, it was pure pleasure to play with, read, and think about. I enjoy novels a lot, but for pure intensity of pleasure, drama and verse get me in the gut.

3 comments:

  1. McEwan is an amazing writer. I jsut finished "Saturday" and must say it was one incredible. A "quiker" read than Atonement, for whatever that's worth, probably because I couldn't put it down, and so beautifully written.

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