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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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History of Wolves
Emily Fridlund
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Jennie Melamed

Atonement: A Novel

Atonement - Ian McEwan Review from The Literary SnobOpenly, I admit that I belong to the faction of those who make every attempt to read the book before watching a film adaptation. I will not go so far as to say that every film is worse than the book it attempts to reenact — personally, I thought both adaptations of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were an improvement — but, even with the expectation that a movie will not compare with its predecessor, I vehemently avoid watching a film adaptation of a book I have not yet read. There are many benefits to taking this approach, but I learned a new one with my most recent read: It can lead you to a amazing book you wouldn’t have read otherwise.I had no interest in reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement. From a distance, his novels seemed to hold some promise, but nothing about them demanded my immediate attention. And with a bookshelf filled with titles that beg for me to open their covers, any book that ask for less is not likely to appear in my Goodreads account. What changed my mind was Keira Knightley. Like her “twin” Winona Ryder, I’ve been impressed with how Knightley can make a great literary character seem so real — that’s not to say that the film isn’t outright atrocious (Ryder’s Jo March was amazing, but 1994’s Little Women was a horrible adaptation). So, I decided that if I was going to see the film, I had to make it through the book.As I began, I was worried that I may be wading through little more than a world of Austenesque British romantic realism and childhood plays for 351 pages; quickly, however, I was being swept up into a child’s imagination and an intrigue that could lead in many different directions. Centering largely on inventive 13-year-old Briony Tallis, perception becomes reality as adult actions are misconstrued. What results is an innocent man being punished and a young love affair being torn apart. The story moves quickly as one scene is played out in many different perspectives and vantage points. It is further propelled by the underlying sense throughout that something is out of place, a feeling that is confirmed in the book’s final pages.From the British countryside to war-torn France and the streets of London, McEwan excels in his descriptive settings. He more than succeeds in creating a novel which embraces scenes equally lush and inviting as they are repulsive and haunting. Some readers will find the first half of the novel, which embodies the lush, multiple perspective portion of the text, to be somewhat tedious; and I wouldn’t completely disagree with this statement. Upon completing the work in its entirety, however, I believe I had felt enough excitement and couldn’t imagine a beginning that better set the mood for the rest.McEwan does an amazing job in developing Briony from a girl most would find annoying, if not outright repulsive, to an young woman whom we feel sympathy toward as she realizes how badly she has hurt two of the people most dear to her. Unfortunately, the characters of Atonement are not all so perfectly written. Without much back story, it is unclear why many of the lead characters make the choices they do. I found the young couple, comprised of Briony’s sister Cecelia and hired hand Robbie, to lack a certain believability. Their actions were effective in propelling the novel forward with images of romance and heroism, and this seemed to be their purpose, but I had hoped to find some deeper meaning. What is it in Cecelia that convinces her so quickly that Robbie is the one? Why are they so sexually charged on their first meeting? Why is Robbie so sympathetic on the battlefield? It wasn’t Robbie or Cecelia that I cared for, it was the idea of the rudimentary love they shared and the driving force for hope. This lack of depth in these primary characters seemed out-of-place in a novel that so effectively weaves a psychological web that it was impossible for me to not become tangled up in it.Through it all, I believe Atonement effectively makes its point. Perception and imagination are the creation of the author, the one who can and will play God — this is the separation of fiction and reality. Which left me asking, which of the two is more real? Which the more powerful?Despite its couple of setbacks, I consider this novel great enough to be placed amongst my list of favorites.