Atonement – Ian McEwan

Book #42

REVIEWER: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

AtonementOn the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge.

By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl’s imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, Atonement is regarded as Ian McEwan’s “masterpiece”, and it isn’t hard to see why it is lauded so.

The novel starts slowly; the first eight or nine chapters serve to set the scene, a mundane commentary on everyday life:

There was really no point trying to arrange wild flowers. They had tumbled into their own symmetry, and it was certainly true that too even a distribution between the irises and the rose-bay willow-herb ruined the effect.

However, McEwan writes a narrative that is simple and elegant, full of fire, excitement and suspense. His prose is beautiful and evocative in its subtle simplicity; as the story unfolds, we are drawn quickly into the narrative, and fall heavily for the characters, which have been captured skillfully without excess explanation.

We watch as our protagonist, Briony, matures through each part of the novel. We watch as she loses her childish innocence while struggling to atone for her mistakes. We are with Robbie in the sobering, stark realities of war:

There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go.

and we learn more about Cecilia and her strength through the letters she exchanges with him:

They turned on you, all of them, even my father. When they wrecked your life they wrecked mine. They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl. In fact, they encouraged her by giving her no room to turn back.

There is, of course, a plot twist. A twist that makes the reader smile and at the same time, scratch their head and turn back a few pages to hunt for clues. This is a novel about love, guilt and the desire to atone for one’s mistakes, and the inequalities (and impact) of social class.

Atonement is a clever and wonderfully-written novel; if you haven’t yet read anything by McEwan, this is guaranteed to leave you wanting more.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Book #92

REVIEWER: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

The God of Small ThingsIt’s been a number of years since I first read The God of Small Things, and in order to write this review, I had to flick through a few pages to reacquaint myself with the story. After choosing a few pages at random, I soon found myself lost in the magical world that Arundhati Roy has created, and an hour passed before I surfaced for air.

The opening paragraphs set an amazing scene; Roy’s ability to capture the everyday so profoundly is evident throughout the entire story. The reader is captured and consumed by her descriptive passages – it is too easy to imagine the scenes as they unfold, given Roy’s astounding skill at awakening every sense, so we smell, see, hear, touch and taste everything the characters smell, see, hear, touch and taste.

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.

The God of Small Things is a little bit magical. Roy has created a reality that is unlike any I’ve read before – it is beautiful, painful, exquisite and yet far more real than any other novel I’ve read. Jason Cowley (The Times) is quoted on the dust cover of my copy as saying, “She has a heightened awareness of the natural world, of smells and sounds, of colour and light…” and I think he has captured the writer perfectly. Her gift to weave such a tale rewards the reader with something like a sensory explosion – Roy manages to capture life and the mostly mundane in the most sensationally poetic way.

It is a witty novel, with so much passion and humour threaded throughout:

She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter – according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma’s outrage. As for a divorced daughter from an intercommunity love marriage – Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject.

The God of Small Things is a novel about love, life and death. It is about relationships and the unseen, intangible forces that draw two people together, as well as the bonds within and between a family. It is about forbidden love and consequences, about society and class. All of these themes are weaved through a beautiful, poignant tale, forming a novel that is nearly impossible to put down.

A highly recommended, unforgettable read.