Day: May 7th, 2007

Three simple words

Monday, May 7th, 2007 | All Things, Books

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the luxury of several uninterrupted hours in which to finally, finally complete Ian McEwan’s Atonement — a book who first 50 pages I’ve reread perhaps half a dozen times over the past few years, without ever progressing much beyond that point. My reasons for the false starts are inexplicable: I’ve read several other novels from start to finish in the interim, but somehow this one — which many critics consider to be McEwan’s masterpiece — eluded me. There may have been some subconscious aversion at work; perhaps I associated the book with the time in my life I acquired it, and just kept setting it aside, like so many other things.

McEwan’s book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2001, ultimately losing the top prize to Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. At the time, many felt that McEwan had been handicapped by having won the prestigious prize just three years earlier for Amsterdam. The same year he was passed over for the Booker, the Whitbread Novel Award was presented to Patrick Neate for Twelve Bar Blues in a decision Neate himself considered an upset. Nonetheless Atonement did go on to become an international bestseller and to collect several other honors including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the WH Smith Literary Prize, the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction, the Santiago Prize for the European Novel and “the People’s Booker.”

So a couple of weeks ago, with endless hours of solitude ahead of me, I decided to tackle this work once and for all. It’s not difficult reading; McEwan’s richly evocative descriptions build the narrative slowly at first, but once the plot was set in motion, I was riveted.

Having just turned the stunning, final page, I can say that I loved this book. Structure-wise, the story is organized into three parts — set in 1935, 1940, and 1999 — and hinges upon the misunderstandings and betrayals of one summer night and their tragic ramifications. I won’t say much more for fear of spoiling it for the others I know among you who haven’t read it yet. But do read it, and we’ll compare notes, off the blog. People still do that, sometimes, I think.

The film adaptation, which reunites star Keira Knightley with her Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright, is scheduled for release in September 2007. The Internet Movie Database describes the movie as “based on the British romance novel by Ian McEwan.” Hmm… for me, “romance novel” always seems to carry with it rather Harlequin-esque associations, which I don’t think captures the essence of the story. The publisher describes Atonement as a “symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness.”

And yet:

Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she had been the one to say them first. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken out loud were like signatures on an unseen contract.


Columbus Circle Statue

Looking forward to McEwan’s scheduled appearance at the 92nd Street Y on June 5.

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