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Racontesse Musings… An Obscenity, the Green Dress & that Fart: Revisiting Atonement

The book won't have changed, but you most definitely will have…

Having booked tickets to see Ian McEwan discuss Atonement, I dutifully set off to reread the book and watch the film for a second time. I first read the novel when it was published in 2001 and at the time found it tense, moving with a shocking and satisfying end. I was enthralled. It's still my favourite McEwan book and I'm not the only one; Atonement is widely regarded as one of McEwan's best works and made it onto the coveted Booker prize shortlist.


An exercise in metafiction, the novel is in set in three time periods. 1935 England, Second World War England and France, and present-day England, it follows 13-year-old Briony Tallis, an upper-class girl, whose half-innocent mistake ruins the lives of those around her. Desperate to atone for her mistake, it overshadows her entire adult life.


Returning to the book in 2019, I couldn't quite remember the minutiae of the text and I was glad to feel the rush of recognition, akin to an unexpected meeting with an old friend. A lot has happened in my life during the intervening years and I hadn't anticipated how much I had changed since my initial reading. Most notably, I studied a Masters degree in 20th-Century Literature and completed diplomas in both script development and creative writing. The knowledge I gained in both literary understanding and creative skill completely altered my engagement with the text.

Back in 2001, I knew that the book dealt with the nature of writing and storytelling. But I hadn't understood the full extent of academic arguments about metafiction, that it emphasises its own artifice and the reader is left in no doubt that the text is quite literally a fiction. I certainly wouldn't have used the word 'metafiction '. At the time I thought "isn't that jolly clever! It's a story and it talks about being a story." I was devastated to have it pointed out to me that Briony had written a happy ending for her characters, but in 'reality' it was desperately tragic. And not a word of it is true!

Clever and thought-provoking, but cruel a manipulation of 'happily ever after '.


In 2007, we'd gone to see Atonement (dir: Joe Wright) when on a family holiday in Cornwall. It had been a stressful afternoon when confusion over sandwich filling had caused a fraught argument. I'd convinced everyone that taking some time out to watch a film would defuse the situation. In my desperation to see it, I had manage to convince my dad and brother that Atonement was a war film.

During an illicit sex scene in the library between star-crossed lovers, Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), my dad let out the longest, clearest tone-perfect fart. We all collapsed in thankful laughter. The tensions of the afternoon were released and we guffawed. And guffawed. Every time one of us wrestled down our laughter, a sidelong glance initiated another onslaught. The entire row of seats was shaking. We were crying. A group of women in the row in front of us, shushed and turned revealing pinched brows. And this started us off all over again. The Fart, an extreme close-up of the word 'cu#t' and a stunning green, satin dress were my lasting memories of the film. This is hardly respectful to the BAFTA and Academy Award-winning film.

Obviously, these memories lingered and raised a smile whilst watching the film for a second time. How could they not. But something else happened; I became distracted by the actors' subsequent career trajectory. I marvelled, that Benedict Cumberbatch (Paul Marshall) featured, I hadn't remembered him at all and I expect that was because he wasn't very prominent at the time. Isn't Saoirse Ronan, as Briony Tallis, I thought, great and she's only kid and hasn't she done well since. I enjoyed the film and thought it had neatly tackled the theme of artifice. But I couldn't untangle my own memories and musings. Can we remove ourselves from a book or a film? I don't think so. What's going on in our heads or in the room alongside our reading or watching becomes part of the storytelling, indistinguishable and entwined.

Being in hospital, meant I ended up missing the Ian McEwan lecture. It was disappointing, but maybe it's more intriguing to let the works and my experience of them speak for themselves – however unreliable.

Sarah Gray

21 July 2020

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