First, this book makes me want to smoke. It just seems like the kind of book that a person should read in a big chair or something, smoking a cigarette ala' Out of Africa, sort of to show how serious I am while reading it. Not in a way that is connected in any way whatsoever to smoking in real life.
Next, and most importantly at this point, I'm having a heck of a time getting into this novel. Thus far, the tale is told mainly in the voice of a young girl, 11-year old Briony, who witnesses several incidents one scorching hot day in 1935. She witnesses a scene between her 21-year old sister (Cecilia) and their neighbor (Robbie), who is about the same age, which she completely misunderstands. He sends a note through Briony, apologizing to Cecilia for the scene, which Briony reads and finds repugnant and somewhat threatening. Lastly, she happens upon a violent crime, her 13-year old cousin being raped by a man, in the dark, whom Briony identifies as Robbie. OK, this is bugging me, because it so clearly wasn't Robbie committing the crime, and there are clues leading in that give that fact away. It bugs me that Briony ignores these clues, as does everyone around her. Her insistence that she knows beyond any doubt that Robbie committed the crime is frustrating.
That's all for now, I'll write more when I finish the book.
OK, I finished the book, and I'm happy to say that I enjoyed the second half much more than the first. Of course, the repercussions of Briony's insistence of Robbie's guilt are immediate and dire. That he is so quickly shut out of the family, and that obvious clues are ignored speaks to the fact that he is lower class, the son of a servant, whereas the girl, and the actual rapist, are both upper class, and therefore the blame easily goes to the poor man, rather than the rich one.
As early as the week that followed, the glazed surface of conviction was not without its blemishes and hairline cracks. Whenever she was conscious of them, which was not often, she was driven back, with a little swooping sensation in her stomach, to the understanding that what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible. It was not simply her eyes that told her the truth. It was too dark for that. Even Lola's face at eighteen inches was an empty oval, and this figure was many feet away, and turned from her as it moved back around the clearing. But nor was this figure invisible, and its size and manner of moving were familiar to her. Her eyes confirmed the sum of all she knew adn had recently experienced. The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed her eyes. So when she said, over and over again, I saw him, she meant it, and was perfectly honest, as well as passionate. What she meant was rather more complex than what everyone else so eagerly understood, and her moments of unease came when she felt that she could not explain these nuances. She did not even seriously try. There were no opportunities, no time, no permission. Within a couple of days, no, within a matter of hours, a process was moving fast and well beyond her control.
The second segment in the book is told from Robbie's point of view. A few years have gone by, and he is in France, retreating from the German army, from Dunkirk to the ocean, where they await a squadron to remove them from France. This segment was the most compelling to me. Robbie's internal world is much less convoluted than Briony's, his motives much more straightforward. His shame at leaving is palpable, as is his desire to get home in one piece to Cecilia. The nuance of his desire to get home, his confusion over his feelings, and his understanding that war removes the labls of guilty and innocent, are very moving.
Through the material of his coat he felt for the bundle of her letters. I'll wait for you. Come back. The words were not meaningless, but they didn't touch him now. It was clear enough - one person waiting for another like an arithmetical sum, and just as empty of emotion. Waiting. Simply one person doing nothing, over time, while another approached. Waiting was a heavy word. He felt it pressing down, heavy as a greatcoat. Everyone in the cellar was waiting, everyone on the beach. She was waiting, yes, but then what? He tried to make her voice say the words, but it was his own he heard, just below the tread of his heart. He could not even form her face.
..what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence, for there weren't enough people, enough paper and pens, enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and gather in the facts. The witnesses were guilty too. All day we've witnessed each other's crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave to die? Down here in the cellar we'll keep quiet about it.
The third segment of the book is mainly Briony's point of view again. It is 1940, and she is working as a nurse in a military hospital in London. She has been changed in ways she could not have imagined, both by the war, and by the outfall of her accusation of Robbie in the rape of her cousin. She has grown up a lot, and is faced with the task of seeking Robbie and Cecilia's forgiveness. She is looking for atonement for her insistance at that earlier time, when she now knows the truth of what happened that day, even more than Cecilia and Robbie do.
I very much liked the book, at least the second half. The writing was beautiful, and painted a picture that was at the same time bleak and lush. Not an easy feat.