I have no idea why I lifted my ban on “buzz” books to read Ian McEwan’s Atonement this week, especially now that the movie’s out, but I’m really glad that I did.
I spent a good portion of my time while reading Atonement fretting. The book came highly recommended by my writing teacher Dale. Despite an inexplicable penchant for Alice Munro, I really respect and admire Dale’s taste. So when I found myself wondering, while reading, what in the hell it was that made this book so special, I worried. First I worried that I got suckered into reading some sort of shitty Alice Munro-like book that was supposed to be all quiet and beautiful or some such bullshit. Second I worried that maybe I would have to reevaluate my perceptions of Dale’s taste.
But all’s well that ends well in this case. I finished reading Atonement this afternoon, and when I finished the last sentence I put my head down and cry. It was beautiful. While I feared for a long time that I was reading a boring, old war story, what I was really reading was this masterfully crafted paean to sisterhood, truth, writing, war in England, love, and atonement. Shit, y’all this gets my highest praise. . . it’s really fucking good.
It’s hard to talk about the plot without giving too much away. But basically, thirteen-year-old Briony lies about seeing something and puts a man in prison. The man? Her sister’s boyfriend. The story is rife with conflict. But it’s the ending here that’s really the magic.
I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. As a writer, I am a terrible ender. I can’t end anything and often just stop when I run out of time or get bored. Neither method is looked upon highly by readers.
I’ve recently read two books with endings that have puzzled me. Amy Bloom’s Away is a great, engaging, entertaining book until the last five pages when it goes all to hell. The ending’s not just bad, it’s confusing, which is the worst thing an ending can be. Now Christopher Moore’s LAMB: The Gospel according to Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, is the exact opposite. His book is kind of mediocre and dull, until the end when KAPOW! he smacks you in the face with some brilliance.
They can both take a lesson from McEwan who starts with a bang and meanders a bit in the middle (if boring war stories are your thing, then you will find no meandering), and then smacks you on the ass with an ending that makes you glad you read every single page.
The last four or five pages of Atonement are so damn good that I think I’m going to read them again before I start Loorie Moore’s Self-Help.