*Spoiler Alert* – this article contains spoilers for Atonement
Welcome back to Mel’s Musings!
This week I wanted to talk a little about Ian McEwan. I first came across McEwan years ago when my father gave me On Chesil Beach to read one summer, a novel whose plot is based on miscommunication and mistaken intent. It was a sad read for a young teenager, and it took a few more years and more life experience for me to truly understand the meaning behind the work. A few years down the line, my A Level English coursework came around and one of the texts I studied was McEwan’s Atonement.
The life of Ian McEwan is an interesting one; he is a British novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, who conveys his dark sense of humour and often controversial subject matters through a particular prose style. McEwan is the master of the oncoming wave which gradually breaks throughout a novel, disrupting everything in its wake. If you’ve read any of his work, you will likely be familiar with this trait of his style, the ‘slow-burner’, so to speak.
You may know the novel or the 2007 film adaptation starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy but, either way, Atonement is classically-McEwan: a work of acutely observed psychologies within a gripping plot. Not only was the book responsible for turning its author into a household name, but the novel itself has a story. Initially a discarded sci-fi short story, McEwan filled the gaps and the final section (arguably the most crucial to the novel’s structure) was only added once production had begun. It is a novel troubled by the fictional nature of fiction and strives to question the concept of truth in literature.
The novel opens in 1935 and centres around a young girl named Briony who lives in Surrey with her sister, Cecilia, who has recently returned, her mother who spends her days in bed at the hands of migraines, her distant father and, among other members of the household, Robbie Turner, the son of the family’s cleaner. Cecilia is in love with him and alas, the young Briony shares the sentiment, which will lead her to take revenge on him as a child who feels the temptation of adulthood whilst being contained by her thirteen years. This here, this temptation and exile, is what lies at the heart of the story and acts at the foundation for the debate around literary truth.
That is something I have pondered over a lot recently; the responsibility of the novel to truth. Part of my investigation for one of my modules this term is the unreliable narrator – a topic that has been discussed to death – and a focus on the internal dialogue. In reading the thoughts of a narrator, we are led to question what ‘truth’ actually constitutes in a novel, both psychological truth which reveals the narrator’s true thoughts and the objective truth which is the representation of the events unfolding in the novel.
Told from Briony’s perspective but in the third person, we learn about what other people are thinking, although, of course, Briony couldn’t possibly know what the others are thinking. The surprising ending of the novel, the revelation that Cecilia and Robbie are dead and Briony has written the novel in an attempt to right her wrongful accusation of Robbie so many years ago and grant them a life in fiction, demands that the reader reread the story, as the new ‘truth’ opens the book to new interpretation.
This is what is so fascinating: the fact that one turn in the plot, one revelation can change the meaning of ‘truth’ within a novel. In Atonement, we read Briony’s truth, but more importantly we read the truth that she orchestrates in order to atone for her sin. McEwan is a genius – he leaves us with a novel which is able to satisfy the reader as a reality whilst still signalling the artificial nature of fiction.
A novel so concerned with the relation of fiction to fact and one of the reasons why I fell in love with the study of English, I urge you to give it a go and experience the genius of Atonement for yourself!
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