[2008-06-02] “Atonement”

I was tempted to read “Atonement” by Ian McEwan after having watched the eponymous film based on the novel. The film was good, but a novel has more space to develop the characters and present their thoughts. The downside of having watched the film based on a novel before having read it is that it constrains your imagination to be based on the scenes and the actors in the film.

The novel does not disappoint at all. The very first chapter is written in a delightfully colourful language that shows how a skilled writer can make mundane things appear quite extraordinary. It introduces an over-imaginative 13-year old girl named Briony and her writings. Briony wants to become a writer when she grows up. She is the youngest of three children born to an upper-class family staying in a big house in the English countryside. Her childish mind misinterprets the encounters she sees through the course of a single day between her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the son of their housekeeper. Later that night, she ends up as a witness to a crime and her incorrect testimony forever changes all their lives.

The novel is divided into four parts. The first part is set in 1935 and describes the events of the fateful day, sometimes from multiple perspectives. The second and the third parts have the Second World War as their backdrop and vividly depict some of the horrors of war. These parts look very well-researched. The fourth part is set in 1999 and has a somewhat different setting from what is depicted in the film, though the film does retain the vital revelation. The film also uses the humble typewriter in wonderful ways not suggested by the novel.

The novel started out wonderfully for me but then it lost some of its charm somewhere around the middle of the first part. Some characters are developed in the first part only to be dropped later, so these sections look a bit extraneous. The second part seemed a bit too dragged out for my taste. In other words, I feel that the novel could have been somewhat shorter without losing much.

Both the novel and the film are good and should be experienced in that order.

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