Friday, October 19, 2007


I am reading Atonement. Huh? You English teacher you, why didn't you read it when it came out?

Um, probably because I was too busy teaching English?

Anyway, here I am, not quite half way through and really not enjoying, but determined to finish because of course I will be going to see the film because it stars that pint-sized hottie James McAvoy. Well, actually, to digress, I don't fancy him - I almost certainly would kick him out of bed because he's cute but not my type. However, I do think this boy can act. I first caught him in State of Play, and he totally held his own against stalwarts like John Sims (now, him, there would be no kicking), David Morrissey and Bill Nighy. State of Play, in case you missed it, was the best conspiracy series on the BBC since Edge of Darkness which aired in 1985. For more info on SofP, check out this link

Oh, I'm not writing about Atonement? You noticed? Mmmm. I feel really shabby about not liking this book. I've flicked through it, I've read enough reviews to be totally spoiled and to understand why others admire it, but I am hating the book. Not the plot, which is why I am perfectly happy to see the movie, which I happen to think will salvage the best of the novel and make up for the utter irritation of the characters because Keira Knightley is lovely to look at and Saoirse whatsit and James McAvoy can act so they will fill the empty heart at the centre of this novel. Because the impression I have so far from reading the first third properly and skimming through the next two sections is that it is an exercise for the writer which exemplifies what's wrong with the British novel: too much self-consciousness, insufficient soul, too little passion, plenty of self-regard. I won't go into the whole business of McEwan's research and his dependence on the memoir of Lucilla Andrews because I think he is perfectly honest about his debt to her work.

But when I think of the gutsy, interesting novels I've read in the past four-five years, Atonement is a flickering night-light in the shadow of arc-lights. Carter Beats the Devil, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the People's Act of Love, The Corrections, Middlesex, Cloud Atlas, A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, The Time Traveller's Wife. Now these are great books, readable, interesting, lively, engaging, rich, rewarding. Beside it, Atonement is a conceit. Now, John Donne wrote conceits, those wonderful, dense, allusive lyrics to mistresses and his wife, exploring emotions and yearnings and jokes through precise and sometimes mannered metaphors, but McEwan's writing in Atonement is like a conceit with no emotion. Yes, I know, I know - I can't say what I know for fear of entering Spoiler Territory. But what I want to get at is that a conceit is fine in a poem, but stretching it across a novel to make points about the nature of the novel is so self-referential that it actually destroys the worth of the novel as a fictional construct - obviously some people love this kind of thing, but I am of the philistine school that says that James, Woolf and Joyce who led the pack in the playing of authorial games were a dead end, and that James's contemporary Conrad was a far truer (and no less playful) artist. I don't think anything can substitute for the constituents of a really good story - plot, characters with whom the reader can engage and themes that look beyond the novel itself and explore the real issues of the human condition - truth, beauty, love, oh yes, and of course, freedom, thank you Baz and the green fairy.

Of course, McEwan touches on the big themes - especially love, to some extent truth and beauty. But it's like the touch of tissue paper - it looks good, but it dissolves too easily under scrutiny.


Kate Diamond said...

My heavens! You're an English teacher, and you've managed to get some books written (and published)? How do you manage? I'm an English teacher as well... and I am stuck in Revision Hell on my first novel as I teach Macbeth to a bunch of 10th graders.

Madeleine Conway said...

Manage - that's a stretchable concept. I have a very very decent husband who does his share of cooking and a lot of child care which frees me up in the evenings, but otherwise, it is boxing and coxing between all the calls on my time. It's not easy, but writing is something I have to do. So it gets done.

Alex Neale said...

I can't believe you're not enjoying 'Atonement'! I read it during the summer and I really really loved it. It must be because you know the movie with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley is coming out and that it's gonna be great that you don't like the book. I picked it up during the summer because I'de already read 'Enduring Love' and his new one 'One Chesil Beach' and just wanted to check out more of his stuff. I love the way McEwan writes, the way his (always male) characters are so freaky and out-of the ordinary and the way he keeps the story so mysterious right up to the end where it all comes rushing out and you finally understand everything.
You say that 'Atonement' has no emotion, but I thought that was the whole point of the love affair between arrogant young Cecelia and creepy Robbie- two passionate young adults. I think McEwan was depicting their relationship as crazily unlikely and impossible by the way they fall in love so suddenly and dramatically. Throughtout the book I got the feeling that Robbie gets so obessed because he needs something to go back to, that he loves teh image he's dreamed up of her more than the real Cecelia.I was never convinved of their love either, but I think McEwan does it on purpose!
I'm impatient to see the film too but I can't help worry that they're gonna make it way too lovey-dovey, McEwan didnt write it like that. At first it's just a physical attraction (and the sex in the library) and then it moves onto a sense of duty on Cecelia's part and a desperate reason to survive the war for Robbie.
Okay, I did think Briony's character was a little far-fetched, that could have been done a bit more convinsingly, with all her guilt and that. I actually really hated the bit at the end with the play and the birthday party and the girl, what's her name, the one who marries her real raper and lives longer than Briony? Despite this I loved the way the book starts off so peacefully and jolly and turns into the nightmare of the Dunkirk retreat. Lovin' the gore and tragedy of the war bits!
So what other stuff have you read recently and disliked? I'm looking around for something new and I usually hate what you love and love what you hate so could you recommend me some more 'Atonement' style books please?! :D

Madeleine Conway said...

Alex, you've nearly convinced me!

Looking back at some other WW2 books that I read earlier this year, I didn't like The Book Thief (too twee), and I really enjoyed The Good German and The Foreign Correspondent by Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst respectively.

But give Alice Hoffman and Elinor Lipman a go - they are good modern writers. And Cheryl Mendelsohn: three American writers I really enjoyed.

Anonymous said...

I dont understand what you guys are all moaning about. The book was an amazing piece of writing and the film just highlighted the amazing novel that it is!! I cired when i read the book and even more so when i saw the film! people dont listen to these stupid messages..... its an awesome plot with imaginative characters and many themes to keep any reader enganged!!!