A review. Which contains spoilers, so if you have any interest in reading this book in the future I entreat you to carry on no further than this sentence.
This book was written by Ian McEwan. And apparently is was critically acclaimed (probably still is) a while ago but I missed that window because I was buried away in the Middle East taking desert trips and reading Oscar Wilde and L.M. Montgomery over and over again because it was all I could find on the dusty back shelves of second hand book stores, where students came to dump their literature at the end of the term when they had no use for it anymore.
Anyway. I am writing this review fresh out of reading the book, and before my opinions have been tainted by other, less optimistic ones.
I loved this book. The first sentence ensnared me not because of its brilliance in creativity – but for its captivating language. The fact that Briony was writing a play was of no concern to me; however the fact that she wrote it in a ‘two day tempest of composition’ will forever be burned behind my retina and perhaps lend a hand of inspiration to any further pieces of writing I might undertake. In fact, I read this book in a two day tempest of enrapture.
I think it might have had something to do with that fact that my reading material lately has been banal, at best. I have been reading cheap kindle books by writers who have incredible imagination but their skill with words is.. well, a little too modern for my tastes. McEwan’s language is what sold his book to me.
This book was written in two parts, and a third piece which was less of a part and more of a reflection. Briony as a 77 year old woman reflecting on the novel she had written, and which we have just emerged from at the end of Part 2, delivers a shock of realism. I thought the ‘novel within a novel’ structure disappointing, and did not see anything wrong with the structure of ‘Briony’s’ novel whatsoever. I didn’t particularly agree with the criticism of her ‘work’, because to me it was sound and genius. The fact that McEwan might have dumbed his writing down to suit that of an ‘aspiring’ writer, and therefore more realistically deliver the ‘novel within a novel’ structure actually filled me with despair. I could never write like that, let alone like what could be considered ‘good writing’.
Part 1 begins with a play that never takes place, a cousin who is lofty and unlikeable right from the start, which makes it hard to emphasise with her being raped because it all seems like a farce. This is horrible to say because if a person is raped their character should not come into it. Briony’s discovery of Lola in the dark after -SPOILER- Marshall has left her makes it seem like Lola was not raped, that it was consensual. The fact that Lola does not defend Robbie or speak up when Briony insists that it was him who raped Lola makes her seem all the more hateful. Two insufferable little girls, one playing to the fantasies her mind has conjured up and one finding relief in an easy cover up of an illegal sexual act, joining forces to ruin the life of an innocent man. Lola’s bruises and scratches however, speak a different story, and it is difficult to ascertain why Lola did not say who her rapist was. It could have been an act of pure psychological trauma as a result of the rape, but then she ended up marrying the man! That made no sense to me!
Briony infuriated me all the more because in some ways, she reminded me of myself as a child. I did conjure up fantasies about people and turned them into characters that coloured the pages of my writing. Seemingly mundane things were turned into wicked plot lines, and the fact that it is all silly and nonsensical and nothing like the real world, and real life, just gave Briony the air of being a snobby, uppity, cotton-woolled, headstrong little girl determined to have the fantasies in her head live up to her ‘mundane’ reality, and in doing so put a perfectly harmless man in jail. For me it was a realisation that the thoughts in my childish head, similar to Briony’s, were stupid and pathetic. I did hate people based on fantasies I constructed of them, but I never put them in jail. I just silently hated them from a respectable distance and in the crackly pages of my journals. And this is why Briony seemed to realistic to me, her mind and thoughts so synonymous with my own as a thirteen year old child. I thought her younger character was brilliantly written.
By contrast, Cecelia and Robbie’s characters seemed almost martyr-like in Part 2. They started off realistically enough, painted in such a way as to highlight their humanity and their flaws. However, after the ‘crime’ had been committed, they turned into wooden beings whose actions and thoughts were determined and lived out by what had happened to them, turning them into saints, almost. Despite this, and despite hating Briony so much for what she had done, I found that the entire premise of the book, all the blame put on Briony for separating two lovers and her being the ‘reason’ they never got their happy ending, the fact that she was just a child, to be a little perturbing. If Briony hadn’t intervened, wouldn’t the war have separated the lovers anyway? I suppose they would have still had their three years, and Robbie the life he was meant to have. But people’s lives are shaped by their experiences, and what if their love hadn’t sustained three years of ‘good fortune’? In a way, I don’t see how she couldn’t be blamed; after all, if she hadn’t seen the incident by the fountain, and hadn’t written about it and conjured silly little fancies in her head, and hadn’t been such a nosy little witch as to read Robbie’s note, she would never have been compelled to attest to Robbie’s being the rapist, and he would have been the celebrated hero who discovered the twins all along! So. Really. It was all her fault.
I immensely enjoyed the vivid imagery of warfare, and Robbie’s horrendous trek though it all. To have him survive long enough to travel the Channel and see Cecelia again was not worth it, I felt. Why go to all that trouble, all that build up, all that suffering only to have him die of some unknown disease OFF CAMERA. We are told, almost flippantly, of his death through the mind of a 77 year old woman. To me this was cruel, because we as readers had travelled with his most intimate thoughts through one of his most harrowing life experiences. I suppose as readers we are taught that any suffering a character undertakes must end in some restitution. And this was meant to embody real life, and real life, especially in wartime, rarely ends in happiness.
I thought the book ended on a somewhat hollow note – SPOILER – the fact that Cecelia and Robbie both die before ever living out their hopes and dreams while Briony, the cause of their suffering, lived on quite happily filled me with rage and immense sadness. Briony’s character as a young child was insufferable, I hated her with a burning passion all through part one and almost to the end of part 2. And as unrealistic and implausible as Part 1 might have sounded, it was told in such a structured and descriptive way that it was almost believable. The build up to the ultimate, horrifying, crippling climax was intense, and I would happily relive that only because the language was so rich it would be worth it. I did find it hard to still hate the older Briony, however. I found myself pitying her, in a way, and when the last sentence was over my heart ached and I wanted to cry but couldn’t because it wasn’t real.
This book screwed with my head, basically. And I loved it to bits, but it hurt so horrendously knowing that it was all for nothing. All of that. For nothing. Robbie lost his life. All of it. Was his name cleared? We never find out. Briony was too much of a coward to go to his FUNERAL. Cecelia … blasted to bits. Briony lived a full life and did she deserve to? Oh, I don’t know. Did she atone for her mistake? I still don’t know. I will have to read it again and find out.