Country house terrorIan McEwan’s novel “Atonement” looks to be doing brisk business in Seoul bookstores following the critically acclaimed movie version, which opens in Korea next week.
I haven’t seen the film, but the trailer presents the story as a very English tale ― lots of stiff upper lips, reserved emotions, splintered upper-class families and painfully formal dinners.
But McEwan’s original novel has a very different atmosphere, to the trailer, at least. Briony, a pubescent writer, commits a crime that will send a young man to jail and rip her family in half. Briony during the course of her life tries to atone for what she did as a child.
Admittedly, the setting could not be more English ― a grand country house where young men and women fresh out of Cambridge University flit across summer lawns.
But there is a dark side to the tale, which is in keeping with McEwan’s previous work. His previous novels have dealt with incest and his short stories often confront unnerving sexual encounters, murder and violence.
Atonement the novel is also rarely free of the threat of brutality. Lola is viciously assaulted in the grounds of the park at night ― Briony falsely claims Robbie, a friend of the family, was the culprit. In Briony’s fictionalized account of her meeting with her older sister and Robbie in the third part of the novel, Robbie comes close to throttling Briony, revenge for sending him to jail on a lie.
The most disturbing scene is the leg stuck in a tree which Robbie encounters as he evacuates to Dunkirk, France, in 1940. A bomb had blown the leg of its unfortunate owner. “The leg was twenty feet up, wedged in the first forking of the trunk, bare, severed cleanly above the knee.”
McEwan seldom strays from the bizarre and the macabre, and despite its pretty setting, Atonement is a violent novel. I don’t think the movie will be.
By Michael Gibb