Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review: Atonement

I'm not particularly eager to describe the plot of this book, partially because it's too detailed to sum up quickly. So I will just repeat the synopsis from the publisher (Anchor Books) that appears on the back of the book:

On a summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment's flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony's incomplete grasp of adult motives and her precocious imagination bring about a crime that will change all their lives, a crime whose repercussions Atonement follows through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.

The first three pages of the paperback edition I purchased are made up entirely of critical praise for this book. It's described as "resplendent," "extraordinary," "astonishing," "magnificent," and "a masterpiece."

I'm going to agree.

Here are a few of the reviews that resonated the most with me:
In the seriousness of it's intentions and the dazzle of its language, Atonement made me starry-eyed all over again on behalf of literature's humanizing qualities.
—Daphne Merkin, Los Angeles Times

Magnificent. . . . Memorable. . . . Suspenseful. . . . McEwan forces his readers to turn the pages with greater dread and anticipation than perhaps does any other 'literary' writer working in English today.
—Claire Mussed, The Atlantic Monthly

Atonement can't be laid down once it's been picked up. McEwan writes like an angel and plots like a demon. . . . He can write rings around most others writing in English today.
—The Weekly Standard

This book exemplifies everything that I love about novels. The writing is so exquisite, particularly in the first half, that it makes me despair about anything I have ever written. Not only are his insights so remarkable that more than once I found myself thinking, "Yes! Exactly! That's how I always feel, too!" but the way that he phrases them are pure perfection.

But the writing style aside, this is one of those books that stays with you when you put it down. Fiction will always be my favorite genre because no other genre is able to invoke such powerful emotions. I think of fiction writing like a chemical reaction is a way. The author is able to craft a story that combines characters, events, emotions, and these are the reactants that are thrown into the vessel. They stay there together, not reacting and existing separately. But then the author gives us the catalyst—it could be a fact that was withheld, or an event, or maybe just insight or character realization. But suddenly that catalyst transforms those reactants that had just been sitting there into the products of emotion and wonder. Suddenly there is something new to be seen from what had been there before, all because of that catalyst that the author gave us. It's this ability to manipulate the reactants and catalysts of a particular story that gives fiction writing its power. McEwan has done this in Atonement. That catalyst is given on the last three pages of Atonement, and it left me breathless.

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