Ian McEwan's Atonement is Literary Fiction (Capital L, Capital F). Serious, ambitious, about something waaaayy beyond entertainment.
But is it any good?
The first third of the book reminded me of all the the reasons lit fic is an endangered species in the publishing jungle. McEwan starts us off with a little girl writing a play. The details about the play and family and the house drag on and on and I couldn't figure what was important in the endless-seeming decription. Don't get me wrong, the writing is beautiful. McEwan is a master at grounding abstractions with such precision you want to go "Oh... aha! Of course!"
There is a passage when the girl, Briony, is sitting at a window looking at her hand and considering the moment of volition between her thought of moving it and the actual muscle movement. After quite a bit of abstract and beautiful prose, she likens this to the act of writing itself.
This sort of thing fits the worst stereotype of lit fic. If not actual navel-gazing, it is indeed hand-gazing ala Wittgenstein (Yes, my husband is a philosopher).
The first section of the novel moves on and on like this (I started to get that snarky "Okay already" attitude when several pages were devoted to the fall of sunlight in a room) but stick with it. All those seemingly excessive and incidental details have significance. By the end of the first section, Briony's cousin has been assaulted and Briony's mistakenly accused her older sister's lover, Robbie, of the deed. He is arrested and sentenced to prison.
The plot, as they say, has thickened.
The second section follows Robbie after his release from a three year prison term. His future much diminished, he is a member of the British infantry retreating to Dunkirk. This section, also beautifully written, moves at a totally different pace. It is a war story, more or less, and totally engrossing.
Then we are again with Briony. Now an adult, she realizes that her false testimony (the result of her youth and imagination) sent an innocent man to prison. She enters nursing school, seeking a way to atone for her sin. She has sent a novella about the day she accused Robbie to a magazine. The manuscript, as the reader comes to understand, is more or less the first section of Atonement (The long drawn out one with all the details). The critique she receives from the magazine is that the manuscript lacks narrative drive and is heavy on the navel-gazing (!) So clever! The reader is left hoping Briony will have a chance to atone, that Robbie and older sister Cecelia will be reunited, all standard happy ending fare.
The last section is a surprise (Spoiler alert!) Briony is now in her 80's, a well-known writer. We discover that Atonement is the novel Briony wrote in response to the critical moment in her life and that much of it-- the whole section about Robbie in the war-- was invented by Briony. She invents a happy ending as well. (I am not going to go into much detail here, in case you choose to read atonement). But, Man! It's a pretty amazing ending, especially when she also hints at a less-happy truer ending and we are devastated at the thought.
Also, this last section plants us right back at the play and the house and what it means to be a writer.
This is all to say that Atonement is exquisitely-- exquisitely!-- plotted, beautifully written, about big subjects near and dear to any writer's heart... and totally engaging once you get past the first section.
Thanks, Mr. McEwan. My faith in the power of literature is restored.