by Ian McEwan



At one point in Atonement, the main character, an aspiring novelist, receives a rejection notice from a publishing house.  The publisher explains, “… you dedicate scores of pages to the quality of light and shade, and to random impressions … Simply put, you need the backbone of a story.”  Reading this passage, I had to wonder if Ian McEwan, the author of this wonderful novel, was perhaps quoting from one his own, early-career rejection slips.  I wonder about that because if I have one quibble with Atonement, it would be about the very quality that so many readers adore in their literature:  descriptive scenes in which we learn about the trees on a street, the smells emanating from a nearby restaurant, etcetera.

A lot of people love that sort of thing.  It is the essence of literature, to them.  I happen to be more of a “story” and “backbone” fan.  I think descriptive prose can be overdone, and is suited more to poetry.  But if I’m giving the impression that Atonement lacks narrative drive and power, forgive me, because McEwan’s novel is a strong, strong book — full of “random impressions,” but also a haunting tale of a child’s mistake that ruins adult lives.


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