The Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month Club: June 2006

June 5, 2006 | 2 books mentioned 1 4 min read

Here in Sioux Falls, one of our local Lutheran private colleges puts on a library book sale. In name, it’s a sale of epic proportions. In actuality, it’s just a clever way for literary junkies and bibliophiles to stock up their collections and appear smarter than they are while the library clears out horribly outdated editions of unread literature.

And it works – I’ll never read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, and I’ll probably skip W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, but I’ll be damned if I’m leaving them off of my bookshelf. Think of how intelligent I’ll look!

Admittedly, though, the books I buy and subsequently read tend to be all over the radar, and book sales of this sort truly fit my fancy. I mean, at fifty cents a book, you’d be surprised how willing you’d be to pick up some book that you may have heard of, or a book that you swear to have some vague recollection of a former college coffee buddy raving about – a willingness that wouldn’t be as strong if it was spotted at Barnes and Noble for $13.99 plus tax.

So my book stacks grow. Some of the authors are well known. Others are barely recognizable. And in time, I’ve found that I rarely – no, I’d say never – seem to find a real stinker of a book. Some are disappointing, yes. But never bad. Maybe I’m just really lucky, or I’m smart enough to take suggestions from those who already like the same books I do. Or maybe I’m like a literary garbage disposal, grabbing everything I read and devouring it with the same gusto I would a handful of vegetable scraps.

coverSo it came as quite a surprise when I finally picked up AtonementIan McEwan’s tale of childhood misunderstanding and wartime barbarics – at the Augustana College Book Sale. Sure, I’d heard of him. Sure, I needed the book. I realized, rather shamefully, that I hadn’t read anything by McEwan, one of the literary world’s darlings, in my entire life. I didn’t know what to expect – was he going to be wordy, an intelligent but inaccessible cacophony of allusions and pomp? Was he going to be so brilliant that I’d never look at literature the same way? Was he going to be just another English twit, barred from my life forever because of a critical over-acclaim? How could I continue to write a monthly book column (which I then condense into a smaller and more jovial version for this very website) and not have read McEwan?

Would they take away my library card?

Well, no. They wouldn’t. But I figured I’d better read Atonement before it was too late. And here’s the best part: he’s actually good. Initially, I was simply pleased with what I was presented: a well worded, brilliantly researched account of high-class English life in the 1930s, followed by a gruesome account of retreat during World War II. Of course, it only got better as I fell further and further into its pages.

Atonement is set out as a narrative: Briony, a ten-year-old girl who is committed to a life of writing, her sister Cecilia, and the son of their family’s hired help, Robbie, prepare for company. Over one day, Cecilia and Robbie rekindle a flame while Briony, without knowing, extinguishes it – possibly forever. From this day, we jump ahead to World War II and the British retreat from Dunkirk. Then, it’s a jump forward to 1999 – nearly 70 years after the first fateful day.

McEwan’s novel isn’t just a “symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness,” as the back cover so brightly puts it. It’s a book that accurately recreates the mind of a child – Briony, in this case – and puts weight behind her thoughts and actions. The ideals of children are real, and Atonement illustrates this notion by showing us the consequences of an immature jealousy and unfounded protection. Through this, lives are forever changed because of Briony’s unwavering account of a violent crime – the rape of her cousin by a stranger.

It’s wonderfully constructed, and McEwan writes at a level that’s detailed, yet not too much so. Some of the narratives seem superfluous, but upon finishing Atonement I realized how important each account was. Four different voices populate its pages, and each helps give a full panoramic picture of the story as it unfolds. The clever way it’s spelled out is central to the book, and it forced me to look at each character differently as the same scene was described again and again.

Atonement shows how deeply an overactive imagination can quickly wreak havoc on those who are closest – how a misinterpreted event can lead to one person being thrown to the wolves, while another laments over a lost love. Themes run rampant throughout the book – too many to count, and much too much to write about in one column (if I could even pick them all out) – but even those who enjoy a good story, regardless of underlying themes and vague references, will enjoy McEwan’s novel.

My favorite part, though, was the subtle little twist at the end – which I will hold back for those who have not read the book. It’s clever, and while many considered it an easy out, I thought it was brilliant. Atonement deserves all the praise it received – I felt the entire gamut of emotions while pouring through each of the characters. I was angry, I was despondent, and I was bitterly jealous. All because McEwan made each character feel as if they were a part of my own family.

I scarcely think I need to ever visit the posh fields of England’s upper class. I’ve lived it already – right there where the river flows gracefully though the fields and a horrible crime can cause children to lie, adults to glaze over with adoration and relief, and the law enforcement to barely bother to find the truth. As long as that little darling says it’s true, it’s going to be true. How horrible. Literarily, though; how wonderful.

Now, I wonder what W. Somerset Maugham would think of it all.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll never know.

Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood Pulp
CVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May

is a writer based in South Dakota

One comment:

  1. The book sale sounds like great fun. The thought of only fifty cents a book makes me drool.

    I read Atonement last year, and like you, it was my first McEwan. I was worried I wouldn't like it, that I'd get to the end and wonder what all the fuss was about. But I ended up liking it very much, including the twist at the end.

    You made me laugh because whenever I see Of Human Bondage on a shelf somewhere I think that I should read it. I've been thinking that for going on 15 years now.

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