IAN McEWAN'S NOVELS

Nancy Catchpole, Member, on 17 September 2002

This discussion was a good start to the season, at least one of McEwan's books having been read by most of the audience.

The main discussion centered around Atonement, the convincing realism of the style and construction, and how much of this was actuality or filled in by Briony Tallis's vivid imagination as herself an aspiring writer.

Members thought the police's main reason for believing her story (although not wholly convincing) was because of the class system as it was just before the second world War. Although only a child of 13 she was in an upper middle class family, whereas Robbie was the son of the cleaner. The convenor pointed out that the whole structure of the novel depended on this; in particular the incrimination of the wrong man, with its dire consequences for him. This sense of class injustice was further emphasised by the real `culprit' not only getting off Scot-free but also being very successful for the rest of his life.

The problem of the author-God was mentioned. It did not matter if the author's style was true to life as long as he had sufficient craft as a writer, that his place settings, his attention to detail, was convincing. McEwan was seen as very clever in this respect. Nancy told us that McEwan's education was fairly conventional and he studied creative writing with Malcolm Bradbury.

Was Atonement a fair title? It was felt it was, as Bryony's life indicates this, illustrated by her wish to do her bit in the war, with all its trials and tribulations, nursing like her sister. Her self-evident and stated guilt was also noted.

It was thought that one of the most interesting themes of the book was the child's `crime of innocence' and misunderstanding of normal sexual love. Why did she have to open the letter, was this a purposeful subversive act out of jealousy? Both cases of `rape', as seen by her and the Police, in reality resulted in lifelong relationships, and in Cecilia and Robbie's case profound lasting love.

Some felt the postscript unnecessary, and introduced an ambiguity, which was not in keeping with the rest of the book, and considerably reduced its impact. The author should not have felt it necessary to resolve every detail, as by so doing the story is reduced to a ` who done it'.

Another member suggested the book read as three short stories, of different styles — first, the family, domestic child's view; then, the Dunkirk adults' view; then again, Briony's writing and atonement — and as a result lacked unity. The convenor thought this construction fully justified and effective. The absolute reality of Robbie's army experience, acting as a contrast to Bryony's fantasies.

Some saw the absence of description of Robbie's imprisonment and suffering as a weakness.

Others thought the atonement did not reach religious levels or emphasis on guilt and therefore had no depth.

Nancy Catchpole thought McEwan's ability to portray women and how they think differently from men improved considerably in his later books.

Peter Valentine