Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth: A Disappointed Fan
New books dissected over email.
March 18 2002 8:24 PM

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Dear Erik,

Happily, we find ourselves substantially at odds on Atonement and, it seems, the entire McEwan oeuvre.

For unlike you, I am a fan: a longtime, slaveringly devoted fan. I read The Child in Time back in 1987 (thankfully before I had a child—for I do not think I could now bear to read that harrowing account of every parent's worst nightmare), immediately went in search of his earlier novel The Comfort of Strangers, and then waited for every subsequent book with mounting enthusiasm. I think McEwan is one of the four or five most consistently interesting, and occasionally dazzling, novelists currently writing. I'm not sure what you mean about his cleverness up until now achieving "rather small, almost trivial aesthetic effects," since what he has been about, in novels such as Child, Black Dogs, and Enduring Love, and even The Innocent has been nothing less than poking a relentless probe into the darkest corners of the human heart.

However, I think Atonement is a flabby novel. Unlike your good self, I feel no qualms in discussing the, to me, not very well-oiled plot, the fulcrum of which I could hear grinding and creaking from about Page 23 (enter Robbie: intelligent, kind, a working-class hero among the careless rich, i.e., the guy's got a bulls-eye painted on his forehead).

The first of the book's three parts unfolds, with the agonizing, fidget-in-your-seat pace of a Merchant-Ivory film, the story of a young girl with a fevered imagination who misinterprets some incidents in an adult sexual relationship and becomes so frenzied in her judgments of this misunderstood behavior that when a real sex crime (if I may say so, a credibility-straining one) takes place, she knowingly indicts the wrong man. The rest of the book deals with the consequences of her act.

Here's the big flaw: The young girl, Briony, is supposed to be very bright. She is also supposed to be 13 years old. Yet all the behaviors and emotions McEwan ascribes to her—the frenzied writing of inane melodrama, the misconstruction of what she sees passing between her older sister and her friend, the betrayal of the letter—these are the acts and thoughts of a) an idiot; or b) a much, much younger child. Yes, yes, I know: This is pre-war England, not 21st-century New York City, and childhood innocence lasted longer there and then than it does today. But to me, McEwan stumbles badly in his drawing of Briony's character and therefore pulls the first part of his book crashing messily around his head.

You admired the 37-page interregnum between Robbie's realization that he's sent the wrong letter and the revelation of the mistake's consequences; to you, "a virtuoso bit of literary architecture." To me, more like laying down a strip mall between a pair of Beaux Arts buildings; an irritating interruption—and a "look Mum, no hands" bit of showing off—that detracts from the slender pleasures of the plot.

I think there are way too many pages of carefully described French windows, rosewood music stands, and gilt mirrors (enuf floral wallpaper—eds.) before the novel suddenly, exhilaratingly soars in the final part of the three-part structure. You like McEwan's description of the warm stone, the crumbling stairs. Well, I'll see your McEwan stone and raise you an Ondaatje: "She smelled the stone, the cool moth scent of it." To me, McEwan's virtuosity has lain in his ability to imagine and describe horrible things, and it is when he takes us into the wartime hospital ward that, for me, the perfectly realized language and imagery arrive. "Using a pair of surgical tongs, she began carefully pulling away the sodden, congealed lengths of ribbon gauze from the cavity in the side of his face. When the last was out, the resemblance to the cut-away model they used in anatomy classes was only faint. This was all ruin, crimson and raw. She could see through his missing cheek to his upper and lower molars, and the tongue glistening, and hideously long. Further up, where she hardly dared look, were the exposed muscles around his eye socket. So intimate, and never intended to be seen." If Paris is worth a mass, this is worth the slog through World of Interiors that McEwan earlier subjects us to. Death, says Billy Collins, is what gets poets up in the morning. Death, and the terrible, human preoccupation with it—imagining, avoiding, causing, grieving—this is McEwan's power alley. For me the sheer plod of the novel's first section is redeemed, in a Hopkins-like way, by the shine that McEwan obtains in the end.

Lest you think this is all the grouchy raving of a woman who has spent too long at bibulous literary festivals in two of the more interesting wine-producing regions of the Southern Hemisphere, I can only say that as a determined McEwan fan I bought and read the book when it was published in England last year. So my bile is not hangover-related.

All best,
Geraldine

Geraldine Brooks is author of Nine Parts of Desire and, most recently, Year of Wonders, a novel.