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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

McEwan and Me

McEwan and Me

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Mother Ginevra

Yesterday I finished reading Ian McEwan's magnificent 2001 novel Atonement.

I'm still shell-shocked; every few minutes when I'm not otherwise occupied, my mind drifts back to this novel and I lose all sense of myself. It moved and troubled me, and I cannot find my way out of the conundrum it presents.

I have a lot to say about it, but I'm particularly astonished by the similarities to my own 2006 story, Counting to Five Thousand 

I swear I'd never even heard of this novel until last year, but I'm sure that any reader of Ct5K who'd already read Atonement would come to the conclusion that I was deliberately echoing McEwan. You could summarize the plots of both stories this way:

  • Young girl makes a prideful, narcissistic decision,
  • which has catastrophic consequences for the people she loves, although she intended no harm.
  • She spends the rest of her life wracked with guilt, searching for atonement for this sin.
  • Her final atonement/redemption is able to come, if at all, only after her own death.
  • The narrative is told from three points of view and covers three far-separated moments in time, including the time of the crime itself and another moment many decades later when the girl is an old woman.

Now, summarizing Atonement that way is like saying Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has a catchy tune in the second movement. It's a terrible oversimplification of Ct5K too, but the two truncations aren't even in the same quantum orbit. But still -- I even used the word "atonement" to describe what Ginny was seeking in the middle chapter of the story.

Of course there are notable differences (apart from the obvious one that my story is less than 10% the length of his, and his isn't fan fiction).

For one thing, McEwan makes his story deliberately more ambiguous than mine. Briony Tallis commits her "crime" at thirteen in Atonement, sheltered and naïve, whereas Ginny is sixteen at the crucial moment in Ct5K. Consequently one can say, honestly, that Briony wasn't fully able to comprehend the magnitude of what she was doing when she did it. Nonetheless she did know, at some level, that it was wrong, and she refused to cure the harm while it was still within her power to do so.

Ginny's greater age means that she bears more responsibility for her decision at the time. Consequently her attempts at atonement are more extravagant than Briony's. Briony, whose sin was the telling of a damaging lie, finds lifelong quest in a search for truth. Her first novella, which she writes and rewrites over the decades until it becomes her last novel, is her fearless confession of exactly what happened. Ginny, by contrast, devotes her life to the poor and destitute. But of course, the consequences of their crimes are different. Briony ruined only two lives (not counting her own) while Ginny caused (or perhaps allowed) the deaths of more than 5,000.

Another important contrast is the level of intention (or lack thereof) each of these characters employs. The most fascinating thing about Briony's atonement is that her final novel itself contains a lie -- a huge lie, the lie that Robbie and Cecilia survived to be reunited and love one another. This happens only in her final draft, and is her attempt both to leave her reader with hope and to rewrite history, to make whole what has been broken. Further, she learns, during the intervening years, that common humanity sometimes forbids the truth, as when she comforts the dying soldier Luc, allowing him to believe that she is his fiancée and telling him she loves him before he dies. She is aware, at the end of her own life, that her redemptive novel will be unpublished until after her own death, and is not troubled by it.

Ginny sets herself the task of saving five thousand lives, and so far as she knows, she fails. Working herself to the bone, she dies before she is able to reach the magic number, although she helps many, many thousands and saves more than four thousand. In her own mind this is failure, because she is trying to save as many as she "killed." But after her death -- indeed, on the occasion of her funeral -- her actions have the effect of healing the breach between Muggles and wizardkind, bridging the gap between magic and science, and ushering in a golden age. Further, in my story, the love does reemerge -- the last surviving Weasley, Ginny's great-grandnephew, meets the woman of his dreams at a ceremony unveiling a posthumous statue in Ginny's honor; she is the sculptor.

McEwan's command of character is frightening. With just a few sentences, sometimes a single sentence, he can suggest oceans about a character's personality and outlook.

Each successive moment Atonement's plot surprised me, even shocked me. Yet, in retrospect, I realized that each of those moments was perfectly consistent with the characters, that, indeed, I should have seen it coming. I'd love to be able to write that well.

If you haven't read it then don't look under the cut – give yourself the pleasure of being surprised by it yourself.
  • Can I read under the cut if I saw the movie? The movie stayed with me for days. Have you seen it? And how does it compare to the book? I read the first chapter on line a few weeks ago, and it doesn't seem to be the easiest prose to get through.
    • Hi Annette! I haven't seen the movie, but it's in my queue on Netflix.

      The difficult prose, I think, is mainly in the first few chapters, when he's mimicking Jane Austen. It gets easier as one goes. (Also the unabridged book-on-tape version makes even the difficult prose easier. )

    • The film does a good job of conveying a story that is literary in its style and themes. I was pleased that they found a way of keeping the ending so profoundly unsatisfying in the film and didn't try to make things neater. The book is much, much richer as you'd expect, though. It's really worth persevering with.
    • Read the book. I enjoyed the film but it doesn't really do the book justice and that's a reflection on the book rather than the film.
  • I do think that Ian McEwan is possibly one of the greatest English language novelists of the moment. I loved Atonement and I was blown away last summer by On Chesil Beach, but my favourite of the books of his I've read is Saturday. I have been meaning to read Enduring Love as well.

    I think you're right to notice similarities between your work and his. I hadn't made the particular link between Counting to Five Thousand and Atonement, but I think there is something about the exploration of events, choices and consequences in your work which matches themes that are common in McEwan's writing.
    • Hi, Ros!

      If that's so, then I want to read more of his writing. Whenever fiction moves me, I think it's because of such things as choices and consequences.

      Saturday was on the list I got from Roxanna Robinson in June. I'll probably read that one next.
  • I have the book sitting on my desk. I haven't got to it yet. It came the other day from Amazon.

    Of course I loved five Thousand. I recall my favorite part was the first scene where everyone was so hopeful. Afterwards, when all the heart break came and the powerful ending, I had to go back and read the first scene again. I don't know the sitatuation in Atonment, but I will keep in mind the situation with Ginny. I have heard it is very powerful....and with a title like that, you know it's very serious.

    I didn't know they are making a film about it.
    • Hi, Rachel!

      Yeah, they made a 2007 film with Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. It was nominated for Best Picture in the U.S., and won Best Picture in Britain.

  • *Makes a note to read 'Atonement'*
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