Avid book reader. Lover of fantasy, contemporary fiction, short stories and non-fiction. This blog is a work in progress - and it will likely always be that way.
I have never read a book that captures guilt and consequences so brilliantly, and heartbreakingly at the same time. It’s absolutely gorgeous. And just in case you’ve seen the movie and think you’re all set: the movie is good, but the book is so much better yet.
Briony, the lead character, is a girl aged 13, very much living into her own head, authoring stories and plays. Her mother describes her fittingly: “[Briony] had vanished into an intact inner world of which writing was no more than the visible surface, the protective crust which even, or especially, a loving mother could not penetrate. Her daughter was always off and away in her mind, grappling with some unspoken, self-imposed problem, as though the weary, self-evident world could be re-invented by a child.”
There are many examples of that, most of them beautifully executed, but the scene with Briony flaying nettles when feeling utterly frustrated is one of the best. Here she is, destroying nettles, and all of a sudden that act becomes something grander, much more impressive than it is:
"No one in the world could do this better than Briony Tallis who would be representing her country next year at the Berlin Olympics and was certain to win the gold. People studied her closely and marveled at her technique, her preference for bare feet because it improved her balance—so important in this demanding sport—with every toe playing its part; the manner in which she led with the wrist and snapped the hand round only at the end of her stroke, the way she distributed her weight and used the rotation in her hips to gain extra power, her distinctive habit of extending the fingers of her free hand—no one came near her. Self-taught, the youngest daughter of a senior civil servant. Look at the concentration in her face, judging the angle, never fudging a shot, taking each nettle with inhuman precision. To reach this level required a lifetime’s dedication."
McEwan introduces the characters slowly and carefully, so we have very solid mental sculptures of who these people are before the story really unfolds. And then you hit chapter 13. Opening sentence: “Within the half hour Briony would commit her crime." The crime she’d spent the rest of her life trying to atone for.
"She would never be able to console herself that she was pressured or bullied. She never was. She trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction, and was too young, too awestruck, too keen to please, to insist on making her own way back.”
Because McEwan build his characters so well before going to the main action, what follows is utterly believable, and gut wrenching at the same time. This is no feel-good book, but it shows how powerful fiction can be. I’m absolutely kicking myself for having bought this book years ago, and leaving it unread on my shelves. It deserved so much more.