It might seem that putting these two novels together is kinda random but I was assigned both to read in preparation for the masterclass I’m about to do at Varuna so I read them one after the other. I have read 1984 before but a long, long time ago – perhaps even at high school. I’ve never read Atonement, but I have read and enjoyed other Ian McEwan novels.
I’m reviewing them together, though, because I had the same reaction to both of them. Let me explain.
I only had to read the first and last chapters of this novel, but that seemed like a waste, so I decided to read all the middle bits too. Actually, it was difficult not to. I’ve been thinking a lot about inciting incidents recently and Orwell has, perhaps typical of the era he was writing in, a kind of loose inciting incident that happens before the novel opens but that sets off everything that later happens, or seems to anyway. Winston buys the diary, at great peril, before the novel opens. The opening of the novel is him sneaking home from work at lunchtime to write in it.
This is a pretty cool narrative device. Diary writing is useful because it allows you to explain things to a reader that wouldn’t ordinarily be explained in the world of the novel. It can totally be over-done and awful, but Orwell has just a touch of it at the start there and then doesn’t return to it. It just begins everything off and it allows Winston to introduce O’Brien and Julia (in one of the greatest sentences of description ever written – deserves a whole blog post!). And then the novel is off and running.
The bleakness of this novel, the tension and fear, the victories Winston has (while continuing to remind us he is going to die) held me mesmerised. Truely, despite some issues I had with elements (his violent sexual sort of MRA thoughts for one thing), the story raced.
Until O’Brien gave him ‘the book’. It put a handbrake on the whole thing. Pages and pages of manifesto. I’m not worried about admitting I skipped it all. By the time he gets back to Winston it is just torture, torture, torture and then an ambiguous ending. I felt let down and flat.
I was assigned to read the first two chapters of this novel. Pfft! As if I could have stopped reading then! These two chapters are a masterclass in characterisation, inciting incidents and are just unbelievably good. Briony’s inciting incident is the arrival of her brother and the cousins but Cecilia’s inciting incident is, wait for it, needing a cigarette and a vase. Who, seriously, can write a whole chapter centred around the search for a cigarette and a vase. Who even puts those two things together? Who can make the search for these common items so monumental that they match it, on a narrative level, with the arrival of friend and foe, the end of childhood and a life-altering power shift (which all happen to Briony in the first chapter)? It made me want to go back to my work and turn it inside out, rewrite it and rewrite it and find the diamonds that MUST be lurking in my work somewhere except I’m too much of a blunderer to see them.
The story gripped me from then on. Honestly, I was limiting writing time to keep reading and then the ending of the first part – I mean, where he goes with that vase and power shift – who even thinks of these things? It was astounding. Astounding.
Then comes the second part. And here’s the thing about this part of the novel: it contained information I wanted – I wanted to know what happened to Robbie and Cecilia, and to Briony. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the wonderful descriptions of Robbie’s journey and Briony’s work and the scene in Cecilia’s flat when they finally come together again was beautiful…but, it wasn’t as good as the first part.
And finally, the sort of postscript. Which did the same thing – it had more information I wanted, but this time it was flimsy and flat. I don’t know why – perhaps because, as Briony says, the lovers needed to stay standing on the street holding hands. She says this and she is right, but McEwan should have taken his own advice, in my opinion. I did not like knowing what happened after that. It felt too neat for Briony, like she got away with it in the end (although I suppose she didn’t really). It didn’t add anything to the book. And I didn’t care about Briony being able to publish her novel – is the suggestion that in doing this Robbie and Cecilia will finally be free? I didn’t buy that.
The endings of these two novels did not take away the enjoyment I had in reading them. But they did tell me something new about how tricky this novel-writing thing can be. Even for the masters. You can be sure I’ll be pouring over these books, particularly Atonement, to see just how he conjured the brilliance that is there and how the ending didn’t work.
And if you haven’t read Atonement, put it on your list because despite the ending, it is still a brilliant read.