Atonement, Ian McEwanThe word: she tried to prevent it sounding in her thoughts, and yet it danced through them obscenely, a typographical demon, juggling vague, insinuating anagrams – an uncle and a nut, the Latin for next, an Old English king attempting to turn back the tide. Rhyming words took their form from children’s books – the smallest pig in the litter, the hounds pursuing the fox, the flat-bottomed boats on the Cam by Grantchester meadow. Naturally, she had never heard the word spoken, or seen it in print, or come across it in asterisks. No one in her presence had ever referred to the word’s existence, and what was more, no one, not even her mother, had ever referred to the existence of that part of her to which – Briony was certain – the word referred. She had no doubt that that was what it was. The context helped, but more than that, the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross. That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly.

This is a strange sort of book. Parts of it are superb. The passage above made me want to sing, even. Yet other parts just didn’t quite stack up.

I don’t think it helped that the central event of the book involves a false allegation of rape (or, perhaps, some lesser sexual assault – it is left obscure) that results in one of the key protagonists spending several years in prison, having to abandon his plans to train as a doctor, and ending up instead as a private in the army just as WW2 is breaking out.

When 13-year-old Briony Tallis comes across her 15-year-old cousin Lola in the garden one night, in disarray and with a man fleeing the scene – she accuses Robbie, a family friend as the attacker, mistakenly identifying him in the darkness and in a state of mind already excited by reading a shocking letter that was not addressed to her. It is not implausible that she should name him, but the way in which she is said to sustain her allegation, even in the face of her own uncertainty, and to be consistently believed – and the fact that her uncorroborated evidence (Lola being confused and unsure) appears to have been sufficient to convict a respectable young graduate about to embark on a medical career, with every reason to treat anyone connected with the Tallis family with the utmost courtesy and respect… not likely. This is not the stuff of real life.

However, if you can swallow that central idea, that in 1935 a young and excitable girl should be believed when she identifies a sex attacker in the dark despite the victim’s own apparently inexplicable inability to recognise him and failure to accuse him, the rest of the book is in the bag. The writing is superb, with only the occasional jarring moment. (It is one of those slightly annoying, self-conscious books in which the writer writes about writing, and pretends to be a character in the book writing and re-writing the story. But it is done so well that you can forgive that conceit.)

Here is an Amazon link.
Got mine at the library.

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