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meissen vase

Author: Ian McEwan
First published: 2001, by Jonathan Cape

I have talked a lot about beginnings, but this book is all about the ending. Well, its endings, rather, because Atonement has many of them.

I won’t spoil it for you, and don’t skip ahead to the end! If you do you’ll be committing a crime. The ending(s) exhibit their greatest power only once you’ve been through the whole thing with Briony, and Robbie, and Cecilia . . . lives ruptured by a lie, the devastating consequences that follow, the brutal descriptions of Dunkirk during the war. From the first, Briony Tallis is a storyteller. It’s tragic that she and so many others should have to pay such heavy prices for her stories.

Some people think this book too “clever.” I don’t. Every time I reach the end, and then read on, and reach the end again, I marvel at how McEwan can change the reader’s entire perception with a single sentence or twist of phrase. The effect is in and of itself devastating, to say the least.

The 2007 movie adaptation of Atonement captured all of the pain and tension that makes this novel what it is.

Wide Sargasso Sea


Author: Jean Rhys
First published: 1966, by André Deutsch

“Such terrible things happen,” I said. “Why? Why?”

Jean Rhys (Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams) was born in 1890 in Dominica—an island in the British West Indies. Her father was a Welsh doctor, and her mother was Scottish Creole, which made Rhys British, but no quite. This aspect of Rhys’s beginnings has everything to do with the development of Wide Sargasso Sea—the novel Rhys published in 1966 after producing a number of novels and short stories, living a wildly bohemian life in Europe, and finally coming to live in obscurity in Devon, England. It is the novel that expresses every expatriate’s grappling with their own place in the world: “I often wonder who I am,” her main character writes, “and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”

The novel is lush, and wonderful, and menacing—Rhys’s answer to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It is the “backstory” of Bertha Mason—Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic”—who in Rhys’s masterpiece reveals a story all her own. To my knowledge Wide Sargasso Sea is the first major contemporary example of “recuperative fiction”—that is, a novel that re-imagines or “recuperates” a minor character from another novel. The trend is so popular today that it seems impossible to count these kinds of stories. Wide Sargasso Sea was a ground-breaker in its day.

There is no redemption for anyone in this novel, however. The text is unforgiving, to the point of brutality. And yet the reader is submerged from start to finish in an ocean of words that crashes with life—towering ferns and moss-covered walls, mango trees and frangipani, octopus orchids that flourish “out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.” There is something immediately contemporary about Rhys’s stream-of-consciousness prose, even though this story is set, like Jane Eyre, in the middle of the nineteenth century. “I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.”

Wide Sargasso Sea won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967, but Rhys’s response to her literary acclaim was that it had “come too late.” Everything seems to have come too late for everyone in this book. Sanity, freedom, love—even death.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


Author: Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
First published: 1884, by Chatto & Windus (U.K.)

Huckleberry Finn is a liar!

Yes, that’s what he is, there’s no getting around it.

But is there such a thing as a good lie? A “good” liar? A justified lie? One of Twain’s main assertions in Huckleberry Finn is that there is.

“I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another,” Huck begins, and this early sentence—truthfully—could stand as the jumping off point for an analysis of liars and lying in the entire book. I don’t think Huck thinks of himself as a liar per se, but he is certainly aware of what he’s doing when he’s lying. The elaborate lie Huck spins in Chapter 16, which leads two river men to suspect that Huck’s raft is carrying his small-pox infected family, rather than an escaped slave, causes Huck to feel the “wrongness” of such a lie in his conscience. But the lie also saves Jim from being captured and returned to slavery, and so, Twain forces us to ask ourselves, how wrong can this lie be?

Huck’s impromptu, homespun lie here is a premonition of the great moral crisis that is yet to come—the crisis that eventually emerges in Chapter 31 when Huck, going against everything he’s ever been taught, beats down his goading conscience and decides to set Jim free. “It was awful thoughts,” he says, “and awful words, but they was said . . .

. . . And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

This is a remarkable moment of contrasting principles and feelings: wickedness and rectitude, stealing and returning, slavery and freedom—wrong and right. Going the “wrong” way (which is of course, the right way) will involve telling yet more lies, and these lies will, strangely, lead Huck to a place of moral righteousness that his culture won’t let him understand, let alone describe.

“If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book,” he later concludes, “I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more.” Huck has exhausted himself with the complexity of his own words, and the slipperyness and arbitrariness of their meaning. One doubts, however, that this is the last lie—or story—that Huck Finn (or his creator) will ever tell.