Frustratingly Overwrought: Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I am often flummoxed by the critical praise and general adoration that certain novels receive. Atonement has been added to that list.

After hearing many good things about Ian McEwan’s novels over the years, I have unfortunately found myself among those who find his writing unimpressive, even offensive. He is the subject of much scholarly analysis, which simultaneously baffles and fails to surprise me, given the emulative and lightly modernist style in which he writes. What he lacks in originality, he overcompensates for with florid descriptions, impressionistic character sketches, and emotional tropes descended from the Victorian age. Most irritating, however, is the pomposity layered into the narrative, which allows McEwan to indulge in self-reflection time and time again without making himself an actual character in the story.

Atonement - book cover

In case you are not familiar with either the book or movie version of Atonement, the story begins on a languid English estate, home to the wealthy but socially inept Tallis family. Cecilia Tallis is a beautiful and restless Cambridge graduate nurturing a blooming infatuation with Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son. Briony, Cecilia’s younger sister, is a precocious and utterly unbelievable 13-year-old who unfortunately witnesses Cecilia and Robbie having sex in the library. She also reads a note intended for Cecilia in which Robbie infamously uses the word c***. Briony folds these two events together and concludes that Robbie is some kind of sexual deviant, a wicked man with a violent infatuation with her sister. When Briony’s cousin, Lola, is raped later that evening, Briony, eager to confirm the shocking tale playing out in her head, convinces herself — and Lola to some extent — that the perpetrator was Robbie. She all too happily condemns Robbie in front of the police and her family, and Robbie is taken away to prison while the actual rapist, wealthy friend of the family Paul Marshall, gets away with his crime.

McEwan’s depiction of a foolish 13-year-old girl is too outrageous to be believable. Briony is a trifecta of self-absorption, hubris, and immaturity, and I find it hard to believe that even a highly sheltered 13-year-old girl from an upper-class English family would behave the way she did — and, furthermore, that she could misunderstand sex and affection so badly. The story would be more palatable if Briony were, say, eight at the beginning of the novel. But that is what happens, sometimes, when a middle-aged writer of the opposite gender tries to write from a perspective he knows nothing about.

Just as Briony, the 13-year-old criminal, is melodramatically hell-bent on condemning Robbie Turner, so, too, is Cecilia’s behavior inexplicable. When the police arrive at the house and start asking questions, Cecilia is too overcome to defend the man she loves:

Where was Cecilia? She hovered on the peripheries, speaking to no one, always smoking… At other times she twisted a handkerchief in her hand as she paced the hallway…Cecilia’s eyes were bloodshot. While others stood murmuring in groups, she moved restlessly up and down the room. (163-164)

Ever the condescending depicter of women, McEwan assumes that when confronted by such a terrible accusation about her lover, Cecilia would be utterly incapable of doing anything productive. Meanwhile, Lola, the 15-year-old victim of the rape, is forgotten in the intervening 100+ pages, as Briony (a.k.a., McEwan’s terribly imagined adolescent female alter-ego) is more concerned about the fate of the falsely accused.

Atonement - Emily's migraine

These developments comprise the first third of the book, or 175 pages. Why it takes McEwan so long to run through this series of events continues to elude me. There are innumerable unnecessary asides, such as the lengthy paragraphs McEwan devotes to describing a vase (p. 21-23), as well as vaguely interesting character descriptions that fail to advance the story in any meaningful way. One chapter is devoted entirely to Emily Tallis, Briony’s mother, and her attempts to avoid a migraine while lying on the bed. Ironically, the chapter gave me a headache.

It may seem whiny to complain about McEwan’s overly descriptive prose — after all, many great novels feature a verbose narrator — but in the case of Atonement, the pseudo-modernist style seems like nothing more than cheap imitation. Atonement never delves fully into modernist territory. Its attempts at stream-of-consciousness are halfhearted; it emphasizes the idea of psychology, but undermines all progress with a strong vein of moral absolution; it uses WWII as a convenient setting, but fails to analyze how the war impacted British society as a whole.

I found it easier to get through parts two and three of the novel, largely in part because the settings — a WWII battlefield and hospital, respectively — involved enough gory details to offset the saccharine story. The novel’s fundamental issues, however, still frequently found expression. In a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness paragraph, for example, Robbie ponders the meaning of what has happened to him and comes to the following conclusion:

Waiting. Simply one person doing nothing, over time, while another approached. Waiting was a heavy word. He felt it pressing down, heavy as a greatcoat… Briony would change her evidence, she would rewrite the past so that the guilty became the innocent. But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. (246)

These trite aphorisms, dressed up in imitative scholarly language, are peppered throughout the novel. Cheap statements of truth always irritate me regardless of context, but I feel they are especially egregious considering the high praise Atonement has received. They are symptomatic of McEwan’s high self-regard, which manifests itself in a letter Briony receives from a notable magazine editor. Briony still nurses dreams of becoming a writer — and, indeed, Atonement itself is supposed to be her creation — and the indulgent letter outlines her early talent.

We found ‘Two Figures by a Fountain’ arresting enough to read with dedicated attention. I do not say this lightly. We cast aside a great deal of material, some of it by writers of reputation…. Though we cannot offer to publish any part of it, we thought you should know that in this quarter there are others as well as myself who would take an interest in what you might write in the future. We are not complacent about the average age of our contributors and are keen to publish promising young writers. We would like to see whatever you do, especially if you were to write a short story or two. (294)

The letter arrives at an odd juncture in the text — within 50 pages of the end of the novel — and reads like a self-affirming argument in favor of McEwan’s nascent writing style. McEwan began his career, after all, by publishing two collections of short stories, and the letter, though full of praise, occasionally reprimands Briony for focusing too much on irrelevant, flowery descriptions. It is an indulgent, and completely unnecessary inclusion considering that it fails to advance the plot in any way. It is yet another psychological aside, a chance for McEwan to examine Briony and, by extension, himself. I think it is worth mentioning that I found James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from which Ian McEwan drew inspiration, completely insufferable. The difference between James Joyce and Ian McEwan, though, is the difference between a controversial trailblazer and a capitalizing parroter.

When McEwan finally deigns to mention Lola, the 15-year-old rape victim, we find out that she is engaged to her rapist, Paul Marshall. Briony attends their wedding in shock, and later, as an old woman, condemns Lola for helping to “cover up” the crime.

As for Lola–my high-living, chain-smoking cousin–here she was, still as lean and fit as a racing dog, and still faithful. Who would have dreamed it? …She wore a sable coat and a scarlet wide-brimmed fedora. Bold rather than vulgar. Near on eighty years old, and still wearing high heels… She was heavy on the makeup, quite garish around the mouth and liberal with the smoothing cream and powder… I thought there was a touch of the stage villain here — the gaunt figure, the black coat, the lurid lips. A cigarette holder, a lapdog tucked under one arm and she could have been Cruella De Vil. (337-338)

Is it criminal not to indict the person who sexually assaulted you? McEwan seems to think so. Did Lola deserve to be criminalized in such a blatant way, with most of the evidence against her derived from her physical appearance? Should a 15-year-old rape victim be eternally damned for latching onto her cousin’s story, and for covering up her embarrassment and shame by marrying the very person who violated her? It falls disturbingly close to rape apologism. Perhaps Briony feels that she deserves forgiveness because she has ardently wished for and imagined it, while Lola wears obnoxious lipstick and shows no signs of guilt. Briony considers herself Lola’s superior because she willingly enrolled herself in a humbling nurses’ training program and spent decades revising the novel that would expose the entire situation. It all feels a bit too self-righteous.

What makes the novel most memorable, though, is the shocking revelation on the penultimate page. It turns out that Briony took extensive liberties with the re-telling of the story; instead of living happily ever after, affirming the importance of true love in the midst of war, Cecilia and Robbie were not reunited as Briony claims. Instead, both of them perished in 1940. Not only is this a cheap parlor trick, a manipulative tear-jerking device shoved in at the last minute to ensure that the novel would make a lasting impression on its readers, but it undercuts the novel’s core premise: that true love is pure, and the only thing that makes life worth living. Twenty pages prior, at the “real” end of the novel, Briony asserts that Cecilia and Robbie’s love was a sacred thing, a treasure:

[Briony] was sad to leave her sister. It was her sister she missed — or more precisely, it was her sister with Robbie. Their love. Neither Briony nor the war had destroyed it. This was what soothed her as she sank deeper under the city. (329-330)

Except, Briony did destroy their love, by falsely identifying Robbie as a rapist and refusing to repent even though she knew that the accusation was born out of a flight of fancy, not reality. The war did destroy Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship; Robbie died died from his wounds while waiting to be evacuated from France, and Cecilia was killed by one of the many bombs dropped on London. Briony/McEwan argues that “…the lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love” (350). The core argument about love rests on a series of events that never actually took place. Granting yourself forgiveness by inventing an untrue, alternative reality is ultimately a hollow act, and Briony acknowledges this:

The problem [is] this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. (351)

What, then, is the point? If a novelist, who controls all of the parameters in his or her invented universe, cannot legitimately grant himself or herself forgiveness, then are we to understand that the act of invention is intended as a penance? Why is Briony so adamant about revealing the truth even though she has altered that truth in order to assuage her guilt? It’s a beguilingly Christian premise: the argument that one must constantly strive to achieve impossible God-like perfection is eerily similar to Briony’s assertion that she can redeem herself through lifetime of penance for a deed she can never undo. Comparing yourself to an omnipotent divinity, and using this as your excuse for granting yourself forgiveness, does not an honest author make.

In sum, with its pompous attitude, dubious characterization, florid prose, inexplicable plot development, gratuitous asides, and self-indulgent redemption, Atonement really is something unique.  It contains all the ingredients of a successful novel, with its doomed romance, exploitative wartime setting, and upper-class affectations. In other words, heed it as a warning of what can happen if you mix together classism, sexism, and a bloatedly celebrated writer.

Overall rating: 2/5 stars

Photos by G. 

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21 thoughts on “Frustratingly Overwrought: Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

  1. Your post has been my only point of sanity in working through Eng Comp class. I can’t for the life of me understand the excitement over this novel and your post helped me understand that it’s not just me. Thank you for the laughs and for your help in coping with this horrid class!

  2. I completely agree with you. Sometimes great original books are valued – sometimes the ones that fit the current modes of the literary establishment are propped up just because they do. Someone has to speak up, I’m glad you’re doing it!!

  3. Ok, I totally agree with you here. I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I felt like the only real, raw, authentic part of it was the scene in the library when Cecilia and Robbie have their sexual encounter. The rest felt contrived. Your reviews, while I may not always agree with them, are really well written. Kudos.

    1. Hi Greta, thank you for all of the comments, and I’m sorry it took me three days to notice them! I’m glad you find my book reviews worthy of consideration, even if we don’t always agree on all points. A lot of people were upset by my negative review of “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” not to mention alarmed by the disparaging tone of many of my reviews in general. I do write positive ones as well, but only when merited. I get frustrated by those who believe it’s impolite to express criticism.

      Regardless, thank you again for choosing to engage with my blog, and I hope to see more comments from you on future book reviews!

  4. Would you mind if I included a link to this review on my blog? I recently read Atonement and despite the fact that I felt quite differently about the novel, I think your critique is brilliant. It would be nice for readers to hear both sides of the argument.

  5. Alina, this is incredibly refreshing and well-written! I haven’t read Atonement; the only book of McEwan’s I have read is Black Dogs, and I found it to be murky and muddled at best. I haven’t even watched the movie! But you have me intrigued, to say the least. My friend has a copy of this and I was pondering about reading it for a while…I almost want to, just so I can compare notes with you afterward!

    1. Haha yeah I found the movie to be quite boring. The two leads are both super good-looking so at least the sex scene in the movie wasn’t as lame as it was in the book… I haven’t heard of ‘Birdsong,’ but just from glancing at the Wikipedia entry I can see how it could be really insufferable!

    1. I’m actually really terrible when it comes to paying attention to sound; I watch most movies with subtitles! So I’ll take your word for it if you say that the sound editing in the movie was impressive.
      Overall, I found myself pretty bored with the movie, but I didn’t find it offensive (unlike the book, haha). I love the green silk dress that Keira Knightley wears (a small detail, perhaps, but it looks so gorgeous on camera!), and I thought Saoirse Ronan’s acting was very impressive.

  6. I’ve never actually read anything by Ian McEwan–although I’ve owned a copy of Atonement for ages–but it’s interesting that you mention scholarly criticism of his novels. I’ve only read one article on him (and that by a Victorianist), but it was fairly critical–the gist being that McEwan’s writing is a holdover from the worst elements of 19th-century ideology (specifically, a particular brand of middle-class individualism). I wish I remembered more about the article, but I was reminded of it particularly by your mention of classism–as I recall, the novel she was discussing takes place against a backdrop of mass protests but fails to engage with them meaningfully.

    1. Thank you for this comment!! I’m extremely reassured to know that my claims weren’t entirely unfounded. It’s been a long time since I learned about the history of English literature in high school (yes, it really was that long ago), and I was worried that perhaps I was making too many assumptions about the general features of Modernism and Victorianism. If you happen to remember the name of the article or its author, please do let me know as I would very much like to read it.
      To harp, again, on the WWII backdrop — which also gets trotted out with regularity in children’s literature, as I mentioned on your blog — it borders on the exploitative in Atonement. There is a great trend of selecting wars as the settings of novels and movies, and I think it’s comes down to a frequently-invoked syllogism that goes something like this: “War is emotional, exciting, and tragic. My book is set during a war. Therefore, my book is emotional, exciting and tragic.” It’s ironic, because McEwan argues against precisely that kind of logic when he discusses why Briony isn’t a good writer: “Actions she thought she could describe well enough, and she had the hang of dialogue. She could do the woods in winter, and the grimness of a castle wall. But how to do feelings? All very well to write, ‘She felt sad’, or describe what a sad person might do, but what of sadness itself, how was that put across so it could be felt in all its lowering immediacy?” (p. 109) Not sure if that quite illustrates my point, but it’s a dense book and the closest quote I could find…

      1. I absolutely remember the name of the author, since I used her extensively in my thesis–Elaine Hadley. I think the article was something like “On a Darkling Plain, ” but since it was nearly a year ago that I read it, I could be wrong (and may also be grossly oversimplifying her argument). In any case, it wasn’t so much about McEwan’s novels themselves as it was the lingering effects of (what she describes as) the Victorian philosophy of liberalism. It’s sort of a precursor to a book she later wrote, but likely much more accessible to those not especially interested in the intricacies of Victorian political philosophy (so, pretty kuch everyone).

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