Atonement by Ian McEwan

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I love the movie. I really do. However, there are special cases where the book is less vibrant than its adaptation and for me Atonement is one of them. If you haven’t watch the movie yet, please do. It is one of my favorite movie of all time with great actors, actresses, cinematography and music and still have the ability to make me bawl.

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Atonement is about the cowardice of a girl who think she knew everything and made a terrible mistake that tore apart the lives of her sister and her love because of a lie. The novel have won multiple of awards and claims for the writer’s own prose and literary merits that I was surprised to experience how badly this novel behaved to me. I could say, I was fooled by Joe Wright’s expertise that I never would have expected how badly constructed this book is.

I’m not kidding.

I do read classical works but I don’t read much from the literary fiction genre but I do when I was really young. All of my utter distaste of the genre was reflected completely by this book. But I couldn’t find a fault in trying but I did read so all of this is my opinion alone despite the long list of critical acclaim that this book have. I, however, am not pleased. (And started to sound british at this point)

Written in four parts, Atonement is a false-memoir and a romance that should have inspire some sort of feeling in it which I never seem to find anywhere among the inconsistent narrating which blind even the most intuitive readers into embracing this shit. The first part of the book which was bloated with unending prose that seemingly would frighten anyone who dare to disregard the genius of the man called McEwan. I was stunned by the ridiculousness of what I was about to immerse myself into as soon as I brace the essays (yes) of Briony Tallis.

In the adaptation, we are consistently aware of Briony as a writer by the clever typewriting sounds but in the book, we are constantly aware that Briony as self-absorbed writer who is so attuned to praises of her ability and her upbringing made her think she was an adult enough for situations that she think she knows but stupid enough not to be thorough in the first place.

Among other things, beside the occasional speaking lines, McEwan seems to have attention-deficit-inducing syndrome with his writing.

Yes, I know it was intended to reflect a thirteen year old point of view as a creative decision but at the end it provided a paradox where the author himself is writing a female version of himself into the book where the female version is writing about herself as the child and the young adult version of herself for most of the story. This confused me a lot at the beginning as it does at the end. Because I know how the story goes, so I wasn’t as surprised by the resolution, instead, curiously, I found multitudes of plot holes in this.

Is that what literary fiction supposed to be? Hundred of pages of mindless writing with unimportant information wedge in an endless paragraph that begs for a heavy duty yellow highlighter?

Even the physicality of the book is deceiving. Because of the seemingly lack of consistent paragraphing and the tiny font would made one who have perfectly good reading sight to question its own ability to read. However, curiously if you increase the font to suit your reading comfort, you could only see unending lines and if you read closely, it doesn’t even mean anything but redundant ramblings!

What made Atonement comfortable to be seen in the the form of a movie was the fact that Joe Wright was able to use the scene and fluently interpret it faithfully according to the novel. You don’t really need to read a long paragraph when you could only see talented people doing everything non-verbally in several camera shots.


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In fact, most of my favorite moment in the movie was the non-verbal parts which would be ridiculous that I would hate the book….. and yet I did.

I was trying to get into the mood of reading this book but I was intrinsically aware  that I was almost halfway into the book and realize I was nowhere in the middle of the story where everything converge itself. I never seem to escape the bloated writings until Robbie’s part of the story years after the first part of the book. Here is where I realized the limitation where McEwan has put himself into.

Maybe because he was able to be a man in the writing, he was able to translate himself well as Robbie than him as Briony. Robbie’s voice only occurs several times in this book although briefly to allow more Briony into the storyline, but I found this is the only part that I identified where the book have soul in it. (However, it wouldn’t be Atonement if the guy just wrote Robbie’s story so…) Robbie’s experience in war while reminiscing his stolen time with Cecilia and the letters was more pronounced in the book than the movie. Here as a man wrongly accused and was still suffering from the past which never seem to escape him, this was the part where the novel blossomed  its core to the eyes.

But it didn’t last.

Because this is also where Briony Tallis became Nurse Tallis. Curiously, the writing went from bloated to soulful to clinical in one go. Maybe because it was intended as that as a trainee nurse, but I seem to remember I was familiar with hospital setting and here I was faced by the most unsatisfactory realization where how some of these was also avoidable. Then I realized that at this point McEwan is really trying to make everything a tragedy without thinking how problematic his plot would become ; just by including Robbie’s intention to be a doctor and both Cee and Briony as nurses.

The last time I checked, Robbie was a very well read student of both literature and basic medicine. He was already studying anatomy and psychology so wouldn’t it be so suicidal to not consider reading up on basic pathology. In fact, he did want to go back to medical school after war and was consistently discussing with Cee about her life as a nurse and the subsequent cleverness in his military training that even several corporal was tagging along with him then wouldn’t it be so idiotic and unconventional for an aspiring doctor to not take care of his injuries in the first place or not to realize something is wrong?

Maybe because it was Briony’s take on Robbie’s condition from the letters she received but soon again we’re overcome by another of those deary Briony narrating where she was cast into a tragic guilt-ridden character until the end of the third part of the book where we saw the resolution happening so suddenly. Perhaps as a way to satisfy the readers as the elder Briony maintained herself.

But…. when compared as a whole, the later part seems to be rushed and frankly never seem to look like it was done with the considerate ‘care’ like it was disjointed after the author’s whole energy was spent perusing the first part under a microscope. Had the parts been consistent, it would have translated well in the novel.

And I don’t even start on the whole character analysis from Cecilia, Emily, Paul Marshal, the twins and down to Lola incident. Like seriously, I could even start comparing how “Kasih Yang Suci” is really similar with this book. I don’t even have to go to the love scene. How is it one could make a love scene sounded sterile?

Frankly, the book is never about atoning anything. Its about Ian McEwan telling a short story and blew it up to make a redundant novel. Oh, of course, it was intended to be that way. Its literary fiction.

There are some part of the book which I like because of the movie but most of all, I’d rather stick to watching the movie instead of scanning a couple of pages of lines and trying to find the exact place where I like because Mr McEwan’s intense dislike of paragraphing made my effort useless in non-ebook form.

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