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Has McEwan reinvented the novel?,
This review is from: Atonement (Hardcover)
Okay, so now we know that Atonement hasn't won the Booker Prize, but Atonement has won the popular vote. Atonement is a far better novel than McEwan's own Booker winning Amsterdam, and so the publishers must have thought that they had a very good chance of winning (although the bookies correctly opted for Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang). The Booker Prize panel does have a tendency of awarding the gong to writers they feel should win (and not necessarily for the best book). Margaret Atwood has written some fantastic novels, and although The Blind Assassin is very good, it is definitely not her best. The same could be said for Ian McEwan's Amsterdam: Enduring Love was much better, but McEwan won the Booker for his paltry follow-up. Maybe McEwan has been trying to atone since then? Atonement has received a great deal of praise, if only "because it's the kind of novel that wins the Booker Prize", but other critics have suggested that he has done no less than reinvent the novel. But can you really make the 'new' more 'new'?
The novel kicks off with a passage from Northanger Abbey (for which I recommend the Everyman paperback edition, edited by my cousin, Elisabeth Mahoney), although Ian McEwan omits the scenes that prove incontrovertibly that Jane Austen created baseball. You immediately get the sense that this could be a novel about a young girl on the cusp of womanhood who goes around in a state of near paranoia, so vivid is her imagination. It helps Atonement very much that Briony Tallis, the young girl in question, is a wannabe novelist. She has migrated from fairy tales to plays, although her playwrighting career is not destined to last very long (and there may be a few playwrights out there gnashing their teeth at McEwan's apparent denigration of their art, the screenplays he has written notwithstanding). One immediately notices how polished the text is: McEwan has worked very hard on Atonement, and it shows. Amsterdam closely followed Enduring Love and was poorer in comparison. Although the novel starts off in 1935, McEwan seems to be aiming for the timeless, classic touch, rather than just period detail.
Since it's 1935, most of the characters know that something ominous is on the horizon. Jack Tallis is doing his best to prepare for it; Emily Tallis doesn't want it to happen, and Paul Marshall, true to his name, is bellicose and seeks to profit from it, by selling his Amo chocolate bars to the Army. The name of Amo, of course, is derived from the Latin for 'I love', but it sounds like Ammo and looks good in khaki. Briony has her mind totally set on the play she's writing - The Trials of Arabella - and in this, she seems just as opportunistic as Paul Marshall, as she seizes upon the arrival of her cousins to stage her play, never mind that they are distraught by the rather public divorce of their parents. It's here that Briony first encounters the haughty Lola, the older sister of twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot. The twins, it turns out, can't act for fake chocolate, and Lola is indifferent. Also in the house is Cecilia, Briony's sister, and Robbie Turner, the son of the family help, and both these young adults have just graduated from studying literature at Cambridge. Cecilia has always been a bit patronising towards her younger sister's literary talents, but is unaware of how potent Briony's dramatic skills really have become...
Atonement is a novel about 'meaning', in all the perambulations of the word, especially since novels are always supposed to mean something. This is where Ian McEwan is very clever, especially in the way he shows how perceptions change over time, as we grow up. If I do read Atonement again, then I'm sure that I will see new things in it, is an obvious observation. But central to the plot is how limited and personal perception is. There's the young Briony standing at the window, seeing the extraordinary scene of her sister Cecilia stripping down into her undies in front of Robbie Turner, and diving into the fountain. And there's yet another and another scene where Briony observes, but does not see. That our perceptions can be so human, so inaccurate, does tend to throw doubt on the whole nature of reality, and on the very basis of human communication. A literary novel is evident of the human desire to communicate at the highest level. Yet McEwan guides us very carefully - he lets us see what Briony does not. However, there's an unsettling "B.T." within this book, and we're not talking about telecommunications. As Cyril Connolly might have put it, Ian McEwan has put a lot into the narrative concerning the development of the novel in the twentieth century. A lot of critics have read this, and because they like logical conclusions, they believe and state that Ian McEwan has reinvented the novel, and that he's finally found a new valid model to replace that magic realism and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' stuff. The Author is not dead, since he was God all along, and had a neat line in resurrection, is what they seem to be saying. Yet I would contend that Ian McEwan has ended with a parlour trick along with a parlour entertainment. If critics really believe that what McEwan is doing is all that particularly novel, then they'll get a nasty shock if they ever come across the similar resolution to James Hoggs' 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner'. Atonement is a fantastic, highly stylised read, with a potent erotic charge, and highly ambitious - but McEwan has not reinvented the novel - he's just written a fantastic book.