Cover of Ian McEwan's novel AtonementFollowing the rather devastating breakup of a 3+ year long relationship, I found myself in a weird headspace and coped with it by watching a myriad of romantic films, seeking out saccharine Hollywood happy endings whenever possible. After running through all the ones I knew, I stumbled on the film version of Atonement at the library, its case advertising it as a great love story. That plus Keira Knightly was enough for me. For those unfamiliar with the story I won’t say anything, other than it was a terrible, terrible film for me to watch at the time. Very well done, beautifully shot, but the last thing I needed.

Thus after that experience I never planned on reading the book. However, during my recent trip my friend and I were discussing the novel I was working on, a somewhat unusual love story set between 1943-47, and he recommended I read Atonement based on the subject matter, but also on the strength of the prose. Trusting him on most things, I picked it up recently and fell into the lush prose happily. I didn’t find the second half nearly as engaging as the first, but was glad I read it. For this post, however, I wanted to single out one passage early on in the book where Briony is discussing the merits of writing a story versus a play, as well as stories in general. I simply love this passage.

A story was direct and simple, allowing nothing to come between herself and her reader – no intermediaries with their private ambitions or incompetence, no pressures of time, no limits on resources. In a story you only had to wish, you only had to write it down and could have the world; in a play you had to make do with what was available: no horses, no village streets, no seaside. No curtain. It seemed so obvious now that it was too late: a story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it. Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing; as with the crooking of a finger, nothing lay between them. There was no gap during which the symbols were unraveled. You saw the word castle, and it was there, seen from some distance, with woods in high summer spread before it, the air bluish and soft with smoke rising from the blacksmith’s forge, and a cobbled road twisting away into the green shade…

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