Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Atonement: a perfect story

What a rare privilege it is to fall in love with a new author! Ian McEwen has been writing for years. But I only just discovered his books when I read Atonement.

Many novels, even when I enjoy them, feel like they've been churned out in a hurry. Like fast food, they suit my speedy reading style. Swallowing without chewing.

It's a long time since I've read a book where each word has been chosen with exquisite care, making me want to chew slowly, savouring the taste.

Ian McEwen creates sentences of such grace, they're unforgettable: "The silence in the house was complete - no voices or footfalls from downstairs, no murmurs from the plumbing; in the space between one of the open sash windows a trapped fly had abandoned its struggle, and outside, the liquid birdsong had evaporated in the heat."

Here's his description of a fountain topped with a reproduction of Bernini's Triton:
Of the four dolphins whose tails supported the shell on which the Triton squatted, the one nearest to Cecilia had its wide-open mouth stopped with moss and algae. Its spherical stone eyeballs, as big as apples, were iridescent green. The whole statue had acquired around its northerly surfaces a bluish-green patina, so that from certain approaches, and in low light, the muscle-bound Triton really seemed a hundred leagues under the sea. Bernini's intention must have been for the water to trickle musically from the wide shell with its irregular edges into the basin below. But the pressure was too weak, so that instead the water slid soundlessly down the underside of the shell where opportunistic slime hung in dripping points, like stalactites in a limestone cave. The basin itself was over three feet deep and clear. The bottom was of a pale, creamy stone over which undulating white-edged rectangles of refracted sunlight divided and overlapped. (pp.18, 28)
And here's a paragraph which makes furniture in a room come alive:

The vase she was looking for was on an American cherry-wood table by the French windows which were slightly ajar. Their south-east aspect had permitted parallelograms of morning sunlight to advance across the powder-blue carpet. Her breathing slowed and her desire for a cigarette deepened, but still she hesitated by the door, momentarily held by the perfection of the scene - by the three faded Chesterfields grouped around the almost new Gothic fireplace in which stood a display of wintry sedge, by the unplayed, untuned harpsichord and the unused rosewood music stands, by the heavy velvet curtains, loosely restrained by an orange and blue tasselled rope, framing a partial view of cloudless sky and the yellow and grey mottled terrace where chamomile and feverfew grew between the paving cracks. (p.20)
A room's furnishings, the way the light falls across a carpet, the growth of moss on a stone fountain: Ian McEwen captures them in such rich and evocative detail, I found myself wishing the day he was describing would go on forever.

How could you not love a book like that? Atonement left me with the lingering satisfaction that comes when you have been privileged to hold a work of polished perfection in your hand.

Tomorrow: Atonement, post-modernism, and questions of truth.

No comments: