This is obviously a great book. It must be, because everybody says so. It's been nominated for all sorts of prizes, including the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black. These prizes are really important, because they indicate that certain novels are literature and not mere fiction; they virtue signal to wannabe intellectuals what they should be reading in order to demonstrate their intellectuality; and they obviously have insights into the human condition and the way of the world that mere fiction doesn't, especially not genre fiction.
There are several elements that make up a good novel, The two most important ones are character and plot. Ideally, there should be a strong relationship between the two, one influencing the other, but it can also be legitimate for a character to feel that the plot is happening to them and that they have no influence.
Other important factors start with grammar and syntax and move through paragraph structure into something called style. Difficult to define but I know it when I see it and I also know it when it's not there. In between is a standard which is unremarkable. It appears to be simple, someone telling a story or describing something in straightforward clear unembellished language. Much harder to achieve than it seems, as can be demonstrated by convoluted or flowery language, or descriptions that seem forced or false.
Other elements can help the enjoyment of a fiction but aren't necessary. A book can conjure the essence of era, place, season or personal milestone. An author could use their specialised knowledge to show the expertise in key characters. I've seen subjects as diverse as Local Government, Tour de France, bird watching, drug addiction, forensic psychology and Norse legends used successfully like this.
I saw the film of Atonement some years back and I found it quite puzzling. Admittedly, I don't remember very much of it because it wasn't noteworthy. A lot of precious simpering around and the unfolding of events that were never properly explained - either 'why' did they happen, or why did one lead to another?
I am currently a third of the way though the book and tempted to abandon it. But it could be worthwhile to continue. I'm not one of these that 'never' abandons books. Struggling on for its own sake is stealing the time you should spend on reading a better book. On the other hand, I'm not so up myself that I don't think my judgement is better than all these literary critics, prize judges etc.
But I do think this is, so far, a case of Emperor's New Clothes.
The first third of the book, essentially, takes place over little more than a day. Nothing actually happens, although a scene is set. We now know whom we can assume are the main characters. But we don't know them. The great characters of fiction, from Christ to Heathcliff to Miss Marple to Harry Potter - we have a sense that we know them, at least as well as we know our loose friends, neighbours and colleagues.
This middle aged man imagined himself into the inner thoughts of a teenage girl and a twenty one year old woman and got it wrong. It is disturbing to see a middle aged man project his idea of sexuality onto young women like this. I don't know where he got his ideas from. He's never been those people, it's unlikely that people like that properly confided in him at that age, or as a father. Very few writings by women/girls of those ages are in the public domain. It lacks credibility.
Two of the main characters, Cecilia and Robert have both just 'come down' from 'reading' English Literature at Cambridge. One of the tiredest tropes in literary fiction, this idea that every undergraduate attends Oxbridge and 'reads' English Lit. Even in the 30s, when this is set, this wasn't true. They're the same shallow, self-absorbed, ignorant intellectual snobs that made Chesil Beach so tiresome. Their minds have been narrowed by reading only the 'classics' and they are unaware of human feelings and personalities outside the pages of (often dated) 'approved' fiction.
The plot ponders and meanders. So far, nothing has happened.The story starts too early, with a long and tedious description of a play written by the bratty thirteen year old, which in the end doesn't get performed, and doesn't seem to have any allegorical value. We have all these people simpering around purposelessly. The mother is in bed with one of her frequent migraines - which the writer treats as a personality quirk rather than as a life limiting disability. The older daughter takes all day to put a vase of flowers in the guest room.
The book is set within commuting distance of London and with sight of the Surrey Hills. Other than that one mention of those hills, nothing that evokes place. It could as easily be set in Cheshire or Northumberland or West Glamorgan, or Connecticut or Tuscany. It's supposedly set in the 1930s. I've recently read two fictions actually written in the 1930s, and this has no resemblance. It has no humour, it's as though none of these one dimensional characters nor the author has a sense of humour. We use that phrase as a cliché - sense of humour. But say it slowly, emphasise the 'sense', pause after it. I don't expect or want wisecracks or slapstick, but levity, unintentional comedy, and for everybody to stop being so solemn, earnest and self-absorbed.
I have read a review on Goodreads which fills me with dread. It says:
McEwan also experiments with structure in ways that are truly innovative and new without being gimmicky.... Part One of the story is extremely traditional (broken into chapters, with a clear rotation of perspectives and a uniform chronology). Parts Two and Three are much more modern - the story, which switches gears to follow the gardener into WWII France and Briony to her experiences as a nurse in London, loses structure and fluidity and uses more modern storytelling techniques. Finally, the last section is utterly contemporary - the story becomes even more abstract, with unreliable narrators and more conceptual writing favored over simple narrative.
Perhaps this reader has over-analysed this, according to a formula set by the quasi-intellectuals who teach people about book reading at universities. If she hasn't, if she is faithfully recording something that is obvious to all faintly intelligent readers, this is an affectation too far. If a piece of fiction is acclaimed for its 'structure', and is predominantly about structure, it suggests the plot, characterisation, and sense of place and time are lacking.
Fiction serves several purposes. One is purely commercial - some fairly atrocious works sell by the millions but one envies their authors, who are pure business people. Some fiction is entirely to entertain, for us to enjoy for its own sake. If it tells us anything about people and society that's a bonus. Others strive to shed a light onto obscure aspects of society, of psychology, of specialist occupations, and some of these do this better than non-fiction do.
And then there's a category of fiction which seems to exist solely for literary circle-jerkism. People who have spent three years learning about literariness can apply that learning to the reading of literature. Authors demonstrate their ability to apply that learning to be appreciated by those that also know the rules.
This category of fiction is also for those who haven't studied the rules but believe, misguidedly, that attempting to know them makes them better people. It makes them better at understanding these rules, but it can lead to an absence of critical thinking, where you have already judged this book to be great, because members of the cult have said so - hey, look, it's been nominated for prestigious prizes! I've fallen into that trap. I was already hugely disappointed by Chesil Beach but I kept Ian McEwan on my list of Authors to be Read - because he's important, the Guardian says so.
I will struggle on, see if I can be bothered to reach the end, and if I do, I'll blog again.