The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton: portrait of an avid and dangerously beautiful woman

In the midst of a heat wave, during the summer 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony secretly witnesses a scene involving her older sister Cecilia, their childhood friend, Robbie, a fountain and near-nakedness. Unable to understand the signs of this scene, the little girl gives free rein to her wild imagination, convinces herself that she needs to protect her sister and elaborates a neat little drama that, by the end of the day and with the help of other unfortunate events, will disrupt their lives in a most terrible way. A lifetime will not be enough for Briony to atone for her crime.

 

The first part of the novel slowly, very slowly builds up the tension. The idle rhythm of the narration, the long descriptions of objects, lights, colors, thoughts have a woolfian quality and make you feel, if you don’t commit to the book, that, because of this unbearable and hammering heat, nothing is happening and nothing ever will. But Ian McEwan is not Virginia Woolf, and his narrative voice is not limited to the inner minds of the main characters. Contrarily to Briony’s first draft, which is described by the publisher she sends it to as “owing a little too much to the techniques of Mrs Woolf” and as lacking “the backbone of a story”, McEwan’s novel doesn’t lack a backbone. On the contrary, this is a novel that takes you, with the utmost precision, to a place full of doubts, uncertainties and endless possible worlds, like a room full of mirrors in which you struggle to know which reflection is “real” and end up doubting of your very own existence.

The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton
The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton

However, Atonement is not solely the story of ruined lives. As you will probably have guessed by this point, metafiction constitutes the core of this book, which becomes all the more evident in the surprising, upsetting and unexpected ending. The metaliterary dimension appears early in the novel since Briony fancies herself as a playwright and a writer, and soon decides that novels are the best sort of stories because they allow her to exercice absolute authority on the world she creates. The story she invents after seeing her sister and Robbie, though, will lead her to put her “sense of order” to a dreadful use, and this transgressive intrusion of imagination in the real world will blur the boundaries between her fiction and her reality. The fictive story she invents has real and devastating outcomes. As a paradoxical consequence, Briony, as an adult, feels that, to write this particular story, she isn’t entitled to use her imagination in her writing anymore: “I’ve regarded it as my duty to disguise nothing — the names, the places, the exact circumstances — I put it all there as a matter of historical record.” For Briony to atone for her crime, she must stick to the truth of facts and keep her imagination at bay. Or so she tells us, as the ending reflexively casts doubts on the status of the whole narrative and leaves the reader dizzy and frantically skimming through the pages to verify facts, dates and the possibility of other endings…

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