Atonement by Ian McEwan

In his popular blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently declared himself chairman of the “Can’t We Just Give Ian McEwan the Nobel Prize Already?” Committee. Well, Mr. Bransford, I would like to nominate myself for the position of Vice Chairman, for I have seen the light.

I picked up Atonement a few years ago after seeing McEwan’s writing praised on several websites. After reading the jacket, I wasn’t convinced the story would be very interesting, but I decided that it was worth a look. Still, for a long time, the book sat on my bookshelf, collecting dust. Every once in a while, I would lay aside the SF or fantasy novel I was reading and gaze at the bright red spine, wondering if I was ready to tackle a work of literary fiction. Finally, in a rush to find something to read as I headed off to work, I grabbed Atonement and ran out the door.

I started reading the book that afternoon during my lunch break and after a half hour of reading, I wondered if I dared to finish the whole thing. As a writer-wannabe myself, comparing my own work to McEwan’s is like comparing a kindergarten fingerpainting to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Every word of Atonement is placed with surgical precision, as though the author stopped after each word to thoroughly consider its placement. Even discussing relatively boring subject matter such as a young woman struggling over what dress to wear to a dinner party, McEwan paints the scene with such beauty and majesty that the reader almost weeps when, at last, the choice is made. In describing Robbie’s march to the evacuation at Dunkirk, he creates a war that is as beautiful as it is terrible, a surreal landscape of body parts and abandoned machinery that places you along that same road, constantly on guard for German aircraft. The horrors Briony faces in the hospital leave the stench of alcohol and blood in your nose long after you have closed the book.

Admittedly, I read Atonement very slowly. Each short session, consuming a few pages at a time, left me in awe of what writing can be. I was forced to read in small sips rather than large gulps just to absorb the full impact of what I was reading. The book was a nine-course feast of the mind, in sharp contrast to the fast-food variety of books I regularly consume, the so-called best of commercial fiction. McEwan could write about buttering a piece of toast and make you hear the knife scraping across the break, feel the rough texture on your tongue. Few writers have anywhere close to his ability to so entrance the reader, to completely blind him or her with such a riveting story so brilliantly told.

I was so affected by Atonement, in fact, that I have not written at all since I finished it nearly two weeks ago. After seeing such mastery of the written word, I look at my own writing, throw up my hands, and ask myself, “What’s the point?” Reading a work like Atonement may give the fledgling writer those feelings of futility, of self-consciousness that lead many to stop altogether, but I have to look at the book as a learning device. McEwan has shown me all that can be done with a novel and though he has most likely set the bar far too high for me to reach, I can still try.

Now, embarrassed though I am, here’s the update on the work in progress. I spent most of this evening rewriting a short story, so my progress on the new novel, left alone for far too long, stands at:

The Dead and the Dying is currently out on submission to two agents, having received one rejection. I am looking to send out a few more queries during my next two days off assuming the flu and other such distractions leave me be.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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