First, I would like to make it clear, that I have the utmost respect for Ian McEwan. I would probably show the same amount of respect for anybody capable of writing over three hundred pages.
This is exactly the problem with the novel...somewhere between the many pages you tend to lose it, you miss the overview of what is happening in the characters’ lives. McEwan is trying hard to describe as many details as possible regarding the surroundings, but leaves out interesting character hallmarks. As much as I like to know, the color of the furniture, its exact size and shape, each little crack it has, at a certain point I feel like I’m reading a description of a furniture shop and not a living, breathing environment the characters share.
Even though I realize the importance of creating an accurate image of the surroundings, there still remain things that I personally do not consider of any importance. This means, that a specific environment contributes to describing a character, as the interior design of a house does for his owner in real life. But no author should ever go so far, that his readers become bored and jaded.
The novel is well organized, describing events in a logical order in three different sections. While the first one is abundant with far too many design details of the house and the garden the characters inhabit, it is still the one, where things actually happen. It’s because of this fact, that certain characters are annoying, lack depth in my opinion, or are just shallow. Briony is much too spoiled for a child, even for one from the upper class. She is allowed to indulge in whatever hobbies she wishes, because her parents seem much to busy with work or migraines to be able to educate her. This is why her childish tantrums are almost ignored, while an innocent man is sent to jail. I find it not only unfair but somewhat unrealistic, that the police relies solely on the statement of a pre-teenage girl, ignoring the facts and the testimony of the accused.
For a paranoid and deeply sensitive woman, Emily is strangely oblivious to the way mister Paul Marshall spends time with the children in the nursery and his attitude towards Lola.
At this point, I already pictured him as a weird type of man, buying children’s affection with chocolate.
On the other hand, it is stated that Emily, the matron, is always aware of things happening in the house and to the family, even if her headaches make her unfit to move or do things. So I wonder how somebody with this kind of an intuition and so much sensitivity does not see beyond her daughter’s statement, realizing the motivations for her lie. How is it possible to accuse a boy who grew up together with your children without relying on everything you already know about him and his family? I have a strange sensation like the crime and the entire drama connected to it is a hoax. It is impossible to take the events seriously.
The second part of the novel, describing Robbie’s struggles during the war, is unfortunately even less entertaining. I understand the difficulty of writing war stories, but some authors manage to make it right. McEwan just describes different marching episodes with a few stops, inserting a few gruel images every now and then. Maybe he knew that readers might just forget what the walking was about if he would have avoided the brutal intermezzos of cruel imagery. There are enough novels describing scenes of war. I could say that I have read better and more interesting ones, from Rilke to Hassel. On the other hand, I am not much fond of war stories anyway, no matter how well they are written. Still, Robbie is transforming on the battlefield, he is no longer an naïve and scared young student. It is obvious that war changes a man deeply and I like the fact that McEwan included the metamorphosis into the novel.
Last, but not least, the final part, describing Briony’s experience in an army hospital. It’s true, some details are interesting since this is an extraordinary experience. Meanwhile, Briony is turning into a more mature and developed character. She asks herself questions about her life and her actions. She feels regret, anger and shame. What I miss (even though it would fill another 200 pages) is the way she turned into a woman, the steps of her transformation and how she got to reject her family almost completely.
All in all, the novel is a beautiful mixture of characters, people of all sorts. The problem, well actually, my problem, is that I am not capable of falling in love with them. But on the other hand, falling in love is not always enough. The characters annoy me, I fail to understand them and I would so often like to change the course of their actions. I do not understand why serious police officers would trust a scared young girl without further investigating a case. Why is Emiliy portrayed as someone who knows everything in her house, by just lying in bed with migraines, while she proves incapable of seeing that Briony is uncertain, that Robbie is saying the truth. How is it possible that she never noticed the truth about Paul Marshall. Why did Robbie consider going to war, since he was some kind of a nerd and he also knew that it would never rehabilitate his name, as long as Briony keeps lying.
I don’t like the characters Emily and Briony, I find them inconsistent and lacking depth. I feel like the author was moody when creating them, as if he was unable to decide what to do with them. Emily fails to be the matron she should be. I am bored by characters portraying upper class women, who are so sick of everything good they got in their lives, that they need to have migraines in order to have something to complain about. It seems that Briony is turning into her mother. She is not a special child because she is organized and creative. Many infants are like that. In the end, it think of her as a failure; she is not a special child, she is horrible as a sister and daughter, since she betrays and rejects her family. As a writer, I am not sure that she had success because of the beauty of her novel or because readers always enjoy the scandal and the misery of others. I refuse to acknowledge her novel as a form of redemption, on the contrary, instead of understanding or forgiving her, it makes me judge her even more.
One would think I am discontent with the entire novel. But in end, if I managed to remember as much as I did, if I got annoyed, if I got angry, if I disagreed, it can mean only one thing: the book made a greater impact than I thought.