Thoughts on Atonement

Last night, I finished watching Arsenic and Old Lace – (I especially enjoyed Cary Grant’s pratfall over the chair) – but anyway, idly, randomly, I picked a book off the shelf – Ian McEwan’s Atonement – which I had already read (and was greatly affected by) last year – and I started flipping through it.

My first reading of the book was one of those addictive page-turning experiences. But as the book went on, I felt a growing sense of unease. Something bad was coming. Something very bad. I tried to comfort myself that the title actually might mean something GOOD – but this was basically whistling in the dark. The word “Atonement” takes on all kinds of implications, through the reading of the book. It’s a complex word. Seen in different lights, it could mean different things.

Ian McEwan is an extraordinary writer – and I had read some of his other novels – but they seemed a bit cold and shallow to me, although filled with startling sentences. It is with Atonement that he really found his voice.

I read a lot of books, as is apparent. I also love a lot of books. But I can count on one hand (okay, maybe two) the books which moved me, surprisingly, to tears. And I’m not talking about desultory tears, streaking down my cheeks gently – I’m talking about bursting into SOBS.

It’s a rare book, indeed, that can bring on THAT.

Atonement was one of them. The ending is such a … well, it’s not a shock … there is something inevitable about it. But – it had this impact like a dull enormous thud in my stomach. It’s one of those books where, until the very last page, literally, you can’t see the whole picture. And then in one devastatingly simple sentence, you can see everything. So I sat with it for a second, stunned – and the implications just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger … and then I burst into STORMY tears. I cried myself to sleep. Like a little girl. I cried about all the lonely people in the world, I cried for my own loneliness, but I cried most of all – for those characters. The people I had come to love. And also despise, actually. But even the despised characters had their frailties – even they were doing their best – despite the fact that so much of their behavior was hateful and blind.

After my stormy-tear-fest – Atonement has seemed a bit radioactive to me. Although it’s one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, I have shied away from picking it up again. Just because. Have you ever read a book like that? That had such a deep impact that either you don’t feel the need to pick it up again, because you SO got the message – or you are AFRAID to pick it up again, because the implications are too huge and painful to live with in normal every day life …

Atonement had the second kind of impact on me. The truths revealed are too painful to be dealt with in normal life. You would have to deny it all, push it back – in order to get through the day.

I forgot all of that last night, and picked it up again. I flipped through it, randomly, looking for scenes where I had liked the writing.

The making-love scene in the library … an absolutely masterful piece of writing. One of the best descriptions of love-making (not sex) I have ever read in my life. I read that again.

I kept flipping. I had underlined certain sentences I liked. I re-visited them.

The descriptions of London in the days just before World War II – as the menace was growing – is so real, you feel like you can smell the fear and uneasiness in the streets.

Then I read the end. Felt the same dull thud inside of me – but it was more like an echo.

You can’t ever re-create the first time.

I didn’t cry or anything like that. Just re-read some of the sections of the book.

Then went to bed and had TORMENTED dreams all night long. I kept waking up, trying to stop the dreams, and then the same dream would start up again when I went back to sleep. It was an onslaught. Floods rising up 10 stories high – people snorkeling through the choppy grey flood – I was trying to swim fully clothed – I knew I was going to die – the waters rising, rising – above the roofs of the buildings – the current sweepingly strong – the entire world being destroyed …

That was pretty much the dream I had all night. I woke up and I had kicked off all of my covers – including my contour sheets – which – must have taken some doing. I was probably thrashing about like a lunatic. I mean … the contour sheets were in a crumpled heap on the floor.

I COMPLETELY blame Ian McEwan for this. I don’t think Arsenic and Old Lace was to blame. I randomly flipped through McEwan’s book, that was all I did, and then proceeded to have apocalyptic dreams for 6 hours straight. Thanks, dude.

That book is radioactive.

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5 Responses to Thoughts on Atonement

  1. Rob says:

    Arsenic and Old Lace is one of my all-time favorites. I love quirky characters. Teddy and the two aunts are great.

  2. red says:

    SO funny. Charging up the stairs, and digging the Panama Canal. Heh heh heh

  3. Ann says:

    I agree with you completely! Also, Oprah’s magazine this month asks several people–can’t remember who at the moment–to list their favorite books, and one person includes Atonement. But she says the pivotal scene is a RAPE scene, something that does not correspond at all to my reading. What do you think?

  4. red says:

    Hm. The statutory rape is indeed important – because without it Briony would not have told her lie. Which ended up having such an enormous impact.

    I do remember the scene itself – the rape was cloaked in darkness – with dark shapes moving in the grass … horrible.

    But the scene itself doesn’t stand out for me. It’s what came AFTER the rape that burned itself into my brain, and then gave me nightmares. The inquest, the hardening of the lie, the tragic consequences …

  5. This Life says:


    I take Sheila’s book and movie recommendations seriously. We share many of the same interests, and I know that there’s a good chance that if she likes a certain book, or enjoyed a certain movie, that I will too. So

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