Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Following from The Burning Blue and Das Boot, here's another audiobook set mainly in WW2. And what a great book.

I'd already seen the film before reading the book, but been told that this was the right way round: I'm not sure whether that's right, but certainly it didn't harm the book to have seen the film first, and it made it in some way a richer experience I think.

The writing was really good. One key scene is when Cecilia and Robbie meet at a fountain, on a summer's afternoon. The section is too long to quote in full, but the way he describes the water just made me feel that I was right there, e.g.

With a sound like a dry twig snapping, a section of the lip of the vase came away in his hand, and split into two triangular pieces which dropped into the water and tumbled to the bottom in a synchronous, see-sawing motion, and lay there, several inches apart, writhing in the broken light.

It's a romance but a much more complex story than the one told in The Burning Blue, because it's unsettling as well as moving. It was interesting that, as in that book, the issue arises of the resentment felt by the soldiers who had to retreat from France towards the RAF, who they felt had let them down. Before reading these two books I hadn't appreciated that was an issue.

Something that I think characterises the difference between that society and ours is the way that people seemed willing to do what they were told: not just soldiers joining up, but all the civilians who take seriously the government warnings about fifth columnists etc.. And the ward sisters in the hospital where Briony worked: it's difficult to imagine such deference to authority nowadays. Actually one of the scenes which made me laugh out loud was when a soldier in the hospital swore out loud at the pain as a nurse removed some shrapnel from his wounds. The sister appeared and told him off: from then on he was silent.

The sort of book that makes you feel there's no point in ever trying to write something yourself, as you'll never be as good as this.

Completed : 08-Aug-2009 (audiobook)

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