Can you ever read the same book twice?
I’ve been creating bookshelf space and struggling with that question of which books to keep and which ones to pass on. ‘Atonement’ was one I lingered over and decided I needed to read it again to know if it’s a keeper. I first read McEwan’s Atonement when it was a ‘new’ book, nominated for the Booker prize and when everyone seemed to be talking about it as THE book to read. Now, fifteen years later, it is an A level text and established as a modern classic, by whomsoever establishes these things. The power of the novel when I read it at first was based on the shock that revealed a deep plot twist and the reason for the books title. I wondered if knowing this would mean I didn’t enjoy the book on a second read, could I read a book that uses revelation as such a powerful plot device and still enjoy it, knowing what happens at the end?
The short answer to my own question is ‘no’, though I feel a long , however, is needed. Reading it this time I appreciated the author’s craft much more. I noticed the different narrative voices that are played with, the intense descriptions of Briony, the child who fails to understand what she sees yet rejoices in her importance when her narrative is heard contrasting with soldier Robbie’s simplistic descriptions of the horror at Dunkirk. I also recognised that actually the book could be called Atonement? Does the adult author Briony ever actually atone for her childhood ‘sin’, how can she make amends to the dead? Certainly as a 77 year old writer she does not confess to her surviving family or confront the Marshalls who she believes have been implicit in her lie for sixty four years. The story she leaves to explain her mistake is to be published posthumously which avoids litigation and sidesteps justice for the living and the dead. In my view, she remains as unredeemed in the fictional world she is portraying as she is the the ‘real’ events of the book.
The second part of this ‘however’ would also comment that as a novel of the twenty-first century, it comments on the social structures of the first half of the twentieth century. No one accuses or suspects the rich Paul Marshall of rape, the word of middle class Briony is taken over the protestations of servant’s son Robbie. Celia leaves Cambridge with no prospect other than marriage until she chooses nursing to escape from her family. The father of the Tallis family never actually comes into view as he conducts a relationship ‘in town’, the mother is nervous and hysterical and treated as foolish by servants and children alike. In a second reading I realised the layering of narratives makes this a novel about perspectives, is Mrs. Tallis ineffectual, a wronged wife, mentally ill, a migraine sufferer or all of these? Who actually ever knows the ‘truth’ and how can we condemn others for their sins without recognising the flaws that might be in our own perspective. Then this book is called atonement and how can we remove the mote of dust from the eye of another without removing the log from our own?
Is this a book worth reading? Absolutely yes. Is it worth re-reading? again, I would say ‘yes’ because it is so well written that though the shock factor is gone, the narrative power and the ability of McEwan as an author is such that I now think I will read it for a third time. It is a book that will stay on my shelf.