After my fellowship, I wanted to take a break from heavy reading in science and religion. So I started ‘Atonement,’ Ian McEwen’s 2001 novel about an English schoolgirl who commits a sin (referred to in the book as a crime). It had been recommended to me by my late inspirer, Wayne Booth.

I found the novel slow at first, but then devoured all the courses that followed the opener like a glutton.

He kept me going with a couple of lovely descriptions of the writing process and what it so often lacks, first that ‘vital knowingness about the ways of the world which compels a readers respect,’ (page 6) and later that desire to ‘send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s….reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing….’ (page 35) [that last of course explains how we writers suffer doubly when an editor or reader criticizes our work, at least until we’re able to get rid of our own magical thinking about writing, to the extent we ever do.]

I’m not sure that would work for readers who aren’t writers, but I can tell you that not long after the beginning, McEwen has a couple of the best cliffhangers I’ve ever read, and he draws out their resolutions expertly. It’s also exquisitely painful, with extraordinary highs of emotion and hope mixed in with brutal lows. I’m sure Wayne recommended it in part because of McEwen’s narrator, unreliable and honest both (and with a clever twist, to boot).

There is one plot mechanism that I think will stop some readers short. I think it’s a flaw in the structure of the book. But I was too immersed in the ongoing cliffhanger to care much about it while reading.

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