This should be read in conjunction with Atonement by Ian McEwan - one third through.
This contains what might be a spoiler for some people but what I think is a fairly well known fact about the book - which is 15 years old - and the film, which is 9 years old.
I continued reading Part 1 of the book, which comprises a full half of the novel. It seemed to get worse even than what I described in my previous blogpost. The twins ran away, so we had pages and pages of meaningless angst from their aunt and cousin. That of their aunt was barely credible. Unless it was to portray the woman as a complete monster who had no concern about the welfare of two nine year old boys missing at night. That of the cousin was abstract conceptual thinking, not in anyway a realistic portrayal of a 13 year old.
Lola was raped. This is the core event around which the book revolves. He can't actually bring himself to use the word, or barely even to euphemise it, which is perhaps an attempt to emulate the times it is set in. But once she has been raped, despatched to bed and sedated, she no longer exists. He has no concern or consideration for a violated 15 year old, because she is disposable and the fact that a young girl has been raped is just one of those things.
The second part is concerned entirely with Robbie's participation in the retreat to Dunkirk. It is extremely well written. Indeed, it stands on its own as a piece of thoughtful and well researched writing. Whilst marching to Dunkirk, Robbie thinks a lot about what happened - not Lola's rape, because that didn't matter nor does Lola - but about Briony's witness statement and Cecilia's subsequent behaviour. It basically makes Part 1 of the book - the entire first half - more or less redundant. The events could have been outlined in a prologue, or just a few tens of extra words in Part 2.
My trouble with Part 2 is that it is too well written. When novelists set their fiction against an actual historical background, of course I expect them to do their research. Indeed, it would have been very strange if he hadn't read widely and deeply about the retreat to Dunkirk. This is where I have a problem.
In factual books, the writer cites their sources, either as a bridge in the text or in endnotes. A novelist doesn't have to do this. I expect that at least half of this excellent writing is based upon the real memories (published and in archives) of real soldiers, and this leaves me with queasy feeling.
I have read several fictions set against the background of the world wars, and the best ones seek to illustrate through fiction the lives of their people, albeit fictional ones, in a realistic manner that helps us learn more about the facts. But I feel that this author is just using it as a background, and because so much is taken from real accounts, I feel it is using the soldiers' experience.
Perhaps it doesn't help that the other book I have on the go is Martin Gilbert's Never Again: A History of the Holocaust, richly peppered with moving testament from both victims and survivors - real people - of the Nazis. But in Atonement, the retreat of the Armies and the displacement, injury and death of civilians is just a backdrop to a self-indulgent form of entertainment. In a different way from Part 1 this strikes me as profoundly narcissistic.
I suspect that as I move into Part 3, the existing threads will be drawn together and may make more sense, but it's a bit much to have to wait until one is three quarters through a book to see what it is about.
Notwithstanding the exceptionally good writing of Part 2, I still think this is an awful book.