In atonement for the fact that I barely posted anything in November/December this year, I’m kissing 2012 goodbye with Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
There’s a ton that could be said about this book in terms of form working with content, but I would end up spoiling all the twists for you, so I’m just going to say this about the book—I think it’s an amazing example of action through character thought. (P.S. Here's a really great essay with more on that topic.)
If you spun this book through some kind of writer’s centrifuge, it would pretty much come out about 80% character thought. In most people’s hands, this would be totally boring (and I have to admit, in some places, I did basically glaze over some thought to get to the action), but for the most part, McEwan manages to wrest maximum plottage and character development out of really vivid character thought. It also helps that he has multiple points of view, and that several chapters recount the same event via opposing points of view, so you basically get the feeling that you’re walking around a sculpture, seeing it from a bunch of different angles—in fact, I’m guessing that was McEwan’s risk management strategy for the whole book, and I think, overall, it ends up paying off extremely well.
Here’s one of the paragraphs that I remembered most when I finished the book—it’s pretty simple, but I think it brilliantly captures an important plot moment, while revealing both the plight and penalties faced by a central character. In the scene, Emily, the mother of the Tallis household, is in her bedroom, trying to fend off a migraine, while she listens to the sounds of the household around her—including the sounds (although she doesn’t know it at the time) that presage the central crime of the book, a violent act that will tear her family apart:
Habitual fretting about her [Emily’s] children, her husband, her sister, the help, had rubbed her senses raw; migraine, mother love and over the years, many hours of lying still on her bed, had distilled from this sensitivity a sixth sense, a tentacular awareness that reached out from the dimness and moved through the house, unseen and all-knowing. Only the truth came back to her. . . The indistinct murmur of voices heard through a carpeted floor surpassed in clarity a typed-up transcript; a conversation that penetrated a wall . . . came stripped of all but its essential twists and nuances. What to others would have been a muffling was to her alert senses, which were fine-tuned like the cat’s whiskers of an old wireless, an almost unbearable amplification . . . . But though she sometimes longed to rise up and intervene . . . the fear of pain kept her in her place. At worst, unrestrained, a matching set of sharpened kitchen knives would be drawn across her optic nerve. . . and she would be entirely shut in and alone.
And so she lay there as late afternoon slipped by . . . .
(p63, para 2-3)
Emily, in my opinion, is one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel, but I couldn’t help but ache for her in this passage, which provides context and encourages compassion for her suffering, and makes sense of her actions (or, in this case, non-action)—one of many which help lead to her family’s demise. Not only that, but the language—despite the fact that it is completely absorbed with one woman’s perceptions and internal experience—is extremely active, and is as “alert and fine-tuned” as Emily’s own migraine-amplified senses.
Oh man, it looks like I've once again managed to end the new year on an upbeat note--oh well, happy new year and happy further reading to all you fellow writers out there!
Quote Source: McEwan, Ian. Atonement. New York, NY: Anchor Books; 2003. [paperback edition]