This book gets many 5 star ratings and I certainly see why with the complexity and detail of the writing. There is so much internal dialogue, some a stream of consciousness as we see the perspective from different points of view. It took concentration to read this novel and after a while, it wasn’t pleasure reading. Yet, that being said, I was never tempted to bail on this book as the writing is lyrical and the perspectives interesting.
The descriptions were great enough that it could be 5 large wordy paragraphs to capture a few moments, this paired with what the character was thinking.
An example – Thirteen year old Briony Tallis considers herself a playwright and penned The Trials of Arabella with her playing the lead character. As her cousins will be visiting for an extended stay (due to unfortunate family circumstances) Briony intends to cast her cousins in supporting roles. Lola, the older cousin, asks to play the plum role of Arabella. Briony graciously acquiesces as she feels sorry for Lola, but it doesn’t make her happy. Additionally, the younger boy cousins state that playwriting is just showing off and they didn’t want to participate but, as visitors they will. Arrogant Briony is upset by these turn of events as it ruined her play and plans.
She goes to a meadow and viciously hacks down the nettles, pretending they are people she is upset with, starting with Lola. She then “kills” the male cousins and others she’s unhappy with, the moments captured in 4 very long paragraphs as her thought process, documented while she beheads nettles. The massacre allows her rage to dissipate as she considers a change of career from playwright to newspaper reporter. She has a high opinion of herself, by the way.
One of the hinges of the plot is Briony observing her sister Cecilia and the lower class friend Robbie Turner. There is a scene at the fountain where a vase is broken. I read the scene and the verbal exchange between Cecelia and Robbie. Cecelia strips to her underwear and wades into the fountain to get the broken vase pieces. It’s a scene full of both anger and sexual tension. Now, Briony obviously sees things with the only reference and experience a 13-year old mind can articulate. Her confusion with flirtation and sexual encounters, real or imagined, were complex. She observes silently from a window inside the house. She can’t hear what was said, nor can she understand the attraction between the two adults.
When a rape occurs later in the first part of the book, unjust accusations lead to devastating consequences. If you’ve read this you know what happens and if you haven’t, I’ll not add spoilers if you are taking this journey.
The end surprised me. If this were a true story I would feel very sad for so many lives shattered.
So, that’s number #15 on the BBC Culture Books Project.