Warning: Contains spoilers for Ian McEwan's Atonement.
The theme of this months issue could not have been better timed. The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement is about to be released so people are bound to be reading or re-reading a major piece of modern confessional literature. Atonement is a stunning novel, permeated by a misunderstanding that causes a betrayal the more knowledgeable reader is compelled to watch. The youngest member of the Tallis family, Briony the girl responsible for betraying her sister and imprisoning her young lover, tells the story as a form of confession. In using this literary device Atonement joins the genre of confessional fiction, where a first person narrator reveals a revelation, which is usually at odds with the way the reader has been encouraged to think of that character. Confessional fiction is a close, personal style of writing and sometimes this is because it has autobiographical links with the author. However in many cases, such as Atonement, the narrator and story are not comparable to the author or their life, although they may be based on other real people, as is much of fiction.
Confessional fiction stems from autobiography but relates a much more specific account of a person's life, making the event that the narrator is confessing to central by concentrating only on that period. If the whole of the characters life was narrated in detail rather than this single time the reader might feel that the event had less significance in the development of that life. Similarly if confessional fiction concentrated only on the feelings of the narrator, as an autobiography might do, rather than placing emphasis on the consequences of those around them the reader might again feel that the incident was not so important. So confessional fiction utilises the devices of the factual autobiography by having a first person narrator explaining events but it also develops this form to make the account more emotive.
I feel that confessional fiction also owes its generation to the genre of books based on ‘false documents’. These are novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Dracula, which are written as if they are a true documentation of factual occurrences. Like confessional fiction they are usually written in the first person. While they do not usually build to the same sort of shocking disclosure that is present in confessional literature they do ‘confess’ strange events that others may find hard to believe but which they present as the truth. They try to explain that the world is other than what the public believes it to be. This is also what results from the more straightforward confession in the modern literature, where the differences between reality and the view the author and narrator have constructed are exposed.
So why do authors risk readers hating the main characters they have spent so much effort creating? What is the point of encouraging people to get involved with them only to jeopardise good feeling toward the novel by revealing that the main character has tricked them? Well, quite simply, while on the surface sharing the secret of betrayal with the readers may seem a daring gamble authors who write confessional fiction rarely risk anything. The genre has several well developed strategies to ensure that readers do not turn against the main character completely, thereby becoming disgusted with both novel and author. How well these strategies work define how accomplished an author is. Atonement for example has Briony commit her betrayal in her youngest years, out of childish spite and misunderstanding, then when she relates it to the reader her narrative voice comes from a sick, old woman. Both of the times when the reader is lengthily involved with Briony she is at an especially vulnerable stage of life and so it is hard to entirely condemn her, particularly if the reader considers that she has intentionally portrayed her younger self as ‘a shrill obnoxious character…as an act of atonement ’. This is unusual for this type of literature, although in keeping with the fictional purpose of the novel, as confessional authors often work hard at making the reader sympathetic to their character before having them divulge their secret. Due to this orchestrated dislike Briony often comes away worse with readers than many other characters confessing to a terrible act but it is perhaps this failed secondary attempt to make amends that makes Atonement more complex and therefore more successful.
So what shocking secrets are there to discover? What terrifying revelations are in store? What should you read first? Don’t fret at Estella’s Revenge we never tire of making books lists for every occasion.
Atonement – Ian McEwan : Booker short-listed tale of sexual confusion and accusations in the heat of summer.
As Meat Loves Salt – Maria McCann: A sexual confession set during the English Civil War. Lush language and full of taboos.
Fear – Jeff Abbott: ‘I didn’t mean to kill my best friend, but I did.’ Explosive thriller, which can be read quickly.
Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan: Set in a penal colony on Van Diemen’s island this book is a multi-layered confession and observation.
Star of the Sea – Joseph O’Connor: A ship board mystery which conceals an unexpected secret.
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco: Mainly a mystery and literary experimentation this book contains a good old style confession from the narrator, who is a novice monk. Also doubles as a false document.
The God of Animals – Aryn Kyle: Stunning literary first work where a girls whole life builds to one disastrous moment.
Dracula – Bram Stoker: Written as entries from a collective of journals from Jonathan Harker, his wife and their friends.
The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova: A faithful recreation of the style used in ‘Dracula’.
House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski: Confusing, exciting, revolutionary use of the false document.
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe: While I can’t recommend this as a novel for pleasure it is interesting to study alongside Foe by J.M. Coetzee.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley: Made more horrific by the fact that the letters took so long to travel that the story was over by the time anyone in the novel would read them.
And Because Sometimes Confessions Need Revisions
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys: Explains the limits of literary confessions.
Foe – J.M. Coetzee: Again I don’t personally recommend it for pleasure but interesting concepts even if you do end up wanting to shout at the author.