Ten years ago I looked around and took stock of what I’d been reading and realized that I had a pretty solid foundation in Russian literature and a good survey of 19th century literature generally, but I wasn’t reading anything really modern. So I put out the call for good books written in the last half-century, and got a wonderful outpouring of suggestions from the people of the internet of the early 2000’s, a small and loveable group who didn’t post pictures of themselves at the gym or captions about being treated like a queen, but wrote about what they were feeling and experiencing. I read them voraciously. But then I got a job, and then a job at a start-up, and then a job at a start-up and a wife. So I started reading a lot less, and when I did read, it was a lot of garbage. Sometimes pretty entertaining garbage, but not the best of the best. So this year, after a particularly trashy spell inspired by a Barnes and Noble purchase of the Star Wars Trilogy in book form, I decided to get back to this project. A little googling found me this list: The Best Books of the ’00s – Onion AV Club. All such lists are subjective, but I thought this would be a good place to start. My plan is simple, read one of these good books, read something light, read the next of these serious books.
I’d read two of them already, so I won’t be reviewing them here, because they’re not fresh: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. In short, the first one was okay, but not much more than that, and the second was great, really great… but then Zadie Smith’s next book wasn’t so great, and I think that’s tarnished White Teeth in my memory some.
Ian McEwan’s Atonement is the one of the two books I’m writing about today that are set largely in the 1930’s, though both shift around the century a bit and share the narrative device of being written by a character in the story. The narrative in Atonement feels straightforward and easy to read, though, so it isn’t until the end that it becomes clear what you’ve been reading, and this seems to be at the heart of many of the negative reviews of the book on places like Amazon and Goodreads. There’s a sense at the end that things in the universe of the book didn’t occur exactly as they’ve been recorded, and that seems to upset some people, as though one level of fiction–the idea that this book didn’t really happen–is ok, but a second level, that the story being told to us is being embellished as it is told, is unfair. I don’t know how these readers got out of high school. I remember a rather tedious lecture about unreliable narrators with regard to Wuthering Heights, so you figure this kind of thing has been literary fair game for 150 years now.
But Atonement is a wonderful book, and I didn’t think I wanted to review it at all when I was done because all I could think to say was “five stars.” The world and the characters feel real, and I finished the story on my lunch hour, about half a mile down the marina from the office, and got to walk back really thinking and wondering about it. The revelation at the end that upset all of the 1-star people is an open invitation to reflect back on the whole story, and how it was filtered through to us by the mind of a child and the deliberate choices of an author, and it seems like there is so much room for misinterpretation and deliberate injustice that you can paint a much prettier picture of the people in the story, and the whole thing left me feeling happy and sad at the same time.
Anyway, read this one.
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a romanticized retelling of the Peruvian Embassy Hostage crisis of 1996, and if Atonement felt real and true to life, Bel Canto is always one step removed from reality, maybe one-quarter of the way into a magical realism story. People are impossible versions of what they would be in their real life, but impossible in a way that lightens the horror of the inside of a months long siege. There is an opera singer in the group, the only woman left after the first day, and all of the men fall in love with her. The Vice President of the unnamed country becomes a devoted housekeeper and gardener. An ambassador becomes a chef. A child guerilla learns to read, and another learns to sing. A polyglot translator becomes the most important person present, everyone’s messenger, and the only person who gets to know everything going on. Though it has grim moments and the scene ends badly, it’s very compelling and I rushed through it in a daze. It was after finishing Bel Canto that I wondered if I wanted to skip the parts of my plan where I read lightweight garbage in between weighty books. Wondered if there are enough truly great novels out there to last the rest of my life.
I gave it five stars, the least you can do is read it.
The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin has a lot in common with Atonement. Setting, narrative structure, even some plot elements. It is about sex and war in the upper echelons of Canadian (instead of English) society in the first half of the twentieth century. And like Atonement, it’s a good book, but it’s a little less good. It’s four stars, not five. I moved through it at a more leisurely pace, ten days instead of two (though it’s a bit longer, also). Its very complicated structure–now an excerpt from the eponymous work, now a newspaper article, now the reminiscence of an old woman from the end of her life, the first half of which is about her struggle at the end of her days and the second half of which is autobiography–makes it difficult to get a hold of at first. It’s also a careful slow misdirect that serves as foreshadowing for thoughtful readers or as an eventual twist ending for careless ones.
If you’re only going to read one, read atonement, but really go ahead and read them both.