books

Atonement by Ian McEwan

After seeing Joe Wright’s cinematic adaptation of ‘Atonement’ (2007) when I was younger, being a big fan of both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, I was enamoured. The cast, the cinematic landscaping, costume and make-up, the mise-en-scène in general: I thought it was perfection, and arguably this was one of the films that inspired my love for cinema and cinematic adaptations of novels. I noticed recently that it had been uploaded to Netflix and couldn’t help indulging in another watch, it felt strange to watch a young Saoirse Ronan take on the role of Briony after becoming a big fan of hers after seeing more of her recent films such as ‘Brooklyn’ (2015), and was pleased and not at all surprised to see that she was nominated for an Academy Award in the category for Best Supporting Actress. In short, the film is one of my favourites and I would recommend it to anybody interested in historical female subjectivities, British history as a whole or skilful and concentrated use of location and setting as a cinematic technique.

On the contrary, after seeing Wright’s adaptation as an early teen, I had attempted to read Ian McEwan’s novel; inevitably I wanted to draw the contrasts and the similarities and to understand and analyse the book that inspired the cinema. Unfortunately, after around 30 pages, I put the book down. I found it difficult to engage with, I wasn’t lost in 1935 England as I was with the film, the characters inspired no feeling in me and in all, I wasn’t motivated to continue with McEwan’s novel. I largely now attribute this to my age, as an early teen I was engaging in teen literature along with some of the classics, but I’m not sure I could’ve appreciated McEwan’s writing style or understood some of the literary techniques that he employs. Now, as a 23 year old, much more educated woman, I took on the challenge once more of picking up Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, and I did not regret it…

Admittedly, the first 100 pages of the book may have been tougher than the remainder. The book is separated into three parts, and the first one has the slowest version of events. In fact, you almost feel as though nothing of substance has really happened. But when you gain understanding that this is a literary technique employed by McEwan to represent how one small action, that of Briony, can escalate the events of the whole novel, you begin to appreciate the varying speeds of progression within the novel as a whole. Briony’s running away with Robbie’s letter, in which he includes the crude use of the word ‘cunt,’ her latching onto Lola’s insecurity and uncertainty and accusing Robbie of being a ‘maniac,’ leads onto both part two and part three of the book, whereby Robbie is imprisoned, World War II begins and Cecilia becomes a trainee nurse in London, a path which Briony also follows. Thus McEwan, by using varying modes and speeds of progression, represents the escalation of events and creates a book which becomes impossible to put down, even giving a nod toward the theory of The Butterfly Effect.

For me, I became largely attached to the characters. Robbie took on a level of softness in my eyes, I found him to be warm yet stoic and extremely admirable. His story was the one in the novel that I most wanted to follow. Cecelia, for me, is a character of contrasts, of binaries that make up a complex character, yet a character of clarity. Strong willed yet messy, determined and stoic, just like Robbie. Warm, yet cold. One of my favourite parts of the novel is during the first section, whereby Cecelia is dressing for dinner, a dinner which Robbie is due to attend. Her uncertainty regarding her outfit, how she looks, the aura and character which she personifies, this doubtfulness contrasts against the strong willed nature we have previously experienced, especially in her address of Briony and her cousins. As for Briony, I have read many a review stating that by the end of the novel, a certain level of sympathy and understanding for Briony was invoked. Throughout the course of the novel, I only felt a level of disdain and disappointment for Briony, arguably due to my investment in Robbie and Cecelia’s relationship. But it is McEwan’s character development and the complexities within these characters that is created which makes the book so literarily perfect and so beautifully constructed.

However, my favourite part of this novel and yet the most controversial, is the ambiguity of the ending. I have seen many reviews speculating on the the ending – some writers argue that in fact, Robbie died in Dunkirk and Cecelia died in Balham Underground station, and that neither survived the war, as Briony writes in the post-script of the book. Others debate over the fact that in actuality, as depicted in Part Three of the novel, both characters survived the war and went on to live happy lives together after so many years of separation. I couldn’t say that I came to such a definite conclusion, but I think that this is the beauty of the novel – it allows you to make your own judgements on the plot, as it does with the characters, and through this use of ambiguity, McEwan has created a novel that stays with you for not only days, but weeks after putting it down. ‘Atonement’ is now back on my bookshelf, amongst some of my other favourite novels, but I am almost certain that in years to come I will pick it up again and indulge once more. 

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books

The Sun & Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

Toward the end of Rupi Kaur’s second installment of delectable poetry, ‘The Sun and her Flowers,’ she writes, ‘the road to changing the world is never-ending.’ A fitting quote for the book that has undoubtedly touched on some of the most politicised issues affecting the lives and cultures of people all over the planet. A step up from ‘Milk and Honey’, Kaur’s first instalment of poetry of which I wrote about here, ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ has become a staple on my book shelf, and a book I have reached for time and time again. As always, Kaur’s words are both relevant and comforting, and a source of reassurance in testing times. Though this time, her words are politically charged and socially situated in the current climate of social pressures and rape culture. Kaur relates her words to topics such as the refugee crisis, perceived images and expectations of women, sexual abuse and cultural heritage. Nobody can deny the importance of her work in a climate such as the one that we, the society of today, are living in.

After reading ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ over and over, bookmarking the pages that held the most relevance to me, and continuously returning to Kaur’s words, I became as attached to this book as I did with ‘Milk and Honey’, but also curious as to the perception of her work amongst critics. For the most part, Kaur is praised for her attention to detail, social relevance and words that relate so perfectly to the young female generation and the challenges they face. However, existing criticism for both ‘Milk and Honey’ and ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’, most notably from male critics of the older generation, critique Kaur’s writing style: her lack of poetical structure, punctuation and any real pentameter. Of course, Kaur’s work is a far cry from Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it is seemingly a pioneer in revolutionising a genre that is becoming more and more accessible to the youth of today, and further than that, more and more engaging. Kaur tackles polemic struggles of predominantly the female generation through what could be described as a stream of consciousness, thoughts, words spilling onto the page. Unconventional, but in no way should this reduce credibility. Kaur forms a pathway for an ever-emerging genre of poetry, and this should surely be celebrated.

Kaur does make use of a common theme in the poetry genre that has been utilised by the greats over and over again throughout the years from Frost to Wordsworth: nature. Kaur separates her book into chapters titled in relation to the evolution of a flower: ‘Wilting’, ‘Falling’, ‘Rooting’, ‘Rising’, ‘Blooming’. Kaur’s poetry starts with the emotional struggle of grappling with events in her life which have heavily affected her: ‘Wilting’, ‘Falling’. As aforementioned, this emotional struggle is both contemporarily relevant and of utmost importance for many, and the development of her chapters correlates with the development of her recovery, of her overcoming the effects of these events: ‘Rooting’, ‘Rising’, ‘Blooming’. Kaur’s symbolic description of her emotional growth and recovery, becomes a source of inspiration and support for a generation of youth who have continuous impending societal pressure placed upon them. Kaur not only tackles the issues of body image and societal popularity, but also the issues that more and more young women face today, including sexual assault. Kaur shows once again her bravery to face these issues with determination and grit. Her writing is frank, targeted and determined.

‘Wilting’ and ‘Falling’ mark the start of the emotional process depicted in the book. ‘Sun becomes moon and moon becomes sun and I become ghost,’ the line which conveys the ever changing of the days, the continuation of time along with the continuation of sadness. Kaur grapples with herself, conveys the conflicting emotions plaguing her mind and symbolises the internal suffering that most go through during a break-up, during a loss. A concentrated use of nature is present here, one of my favourite lines being ‘I explain how a honeybee does not dream of kissing the mouth of a flower and settle for its leaves.’ However, whilst Kaur describes sadness and struggle, she, too, is empowering, strong and conveys the way in which we should never settle for less than we deserve: ‘if I’m not the one of your life I’ll be the greatest loss instead.’ Kaur foreshadows the emotional growth and strength that she achieves toward the end of ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’. She also presents the issue of societal pressure, of feeling the need to conform: ‘I hear a thousand kind words about me and it makes no difference yet I hear one insult and all confidence shatters,’ a quote which is all too relevant, and something which I myself, as a 23 year old woman, could relate to. In the same chapter, she tackles the issue of sexual violence. The placing side-by-side of the two issues represents the plethora of struggles that women, and people in general, face in today’s society. ‘Home’ is the poem which describes one particular experience of sexual assault. Kaur creates irony through the juxtaposition of both the imagery of sexual violence and the subversion of connotations of the word ‘home,’ a conventional place of comfort and solitude. Through techniques such as this, Kaur takes subjects of a somewhat ‘taboo’ nature, subjects that are both sensitive and scarring, and places them in the everyday, situates them into the norm, into the lives of today’s youth and more broadly, today’s society. She does not shy away, she confronts these issues with full force: expletives and all.

‘Rooting’, ‘Rising’ and ‘Blooming’ mark the evolutionary section of the book. These three chapters are where Kaur grows, in emotion and in strength, where Kaur begins her recovery from her aforementioned trauma. ‘Rooting’ makes reference to Kaur’s immigrant background, both politicizing the book and offering it a place in today’s society, when considering the current refugee crisis and debate in both the UK and the US (used merely as examples) surrounding immigrants, refugees and borders. Kaur writes ‘borders are man-made. They only divide us physically, don’t let them make us turn on each other.’ Her words ring loud and clear in a society divided by prejudice and opinion surrounding the refugee crisis. Rupi Kaur also addresses her own cultural heritage, making reference to the strong female figures in her life, small trinkets of memory that remind her of her childhood, of her roots, her past. It is in this part of the novel that Kaur’s prose becomes personal, and culturally rich. This section of the book is what particularly sets ‘The Sun and her Flowers’ apart from ‘Milk and Honey’. Whilst ‘Milk and Honey’ is emotionally rich, addresses the internal conflict and emotion faced by many in today’s society surrounding the circumstances of break-ups, broken friendships, familial conflict, ‘The Sun and her Flowers’ is much more politically representative of worldwide issues, whilst simultaneously addresses her own, personal culture and heritage. The combination of the two juxtaposed together is wonderful.

In all, and in true Rupi Kaur fashion, the undercurrent of feminism and empowered female strength is what makes ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ stand out for me. Kaur maintains her ‘girl power’ ethos, no matter which issue is being tackled in which section of the book, her feminist undertones are maintained throughout, and this, more than anything, is why I continue to engage with her poetry. She writes, ‘I am busy learning the consequences of womanhood when I should be learning science and math instead,’ an idea which may seem preposterous to some, but is wholly relevant in a world where women are largely underrepresented in industries such as Finance and Engineering. She also describes the way in which we, as women, engage with ‘a trillion dollar industry that would collapse if we believed we were beautiful enough already.’  Once again, addressing the issue of body image and self confidence, alongside the issue of underrepresentation and women’s education, Kaur covers the plethora of issues faced by the women of today. Last but certainly not least, and arguably my favourite element of Kaur’s works, her words are an ever-comforting source of support and inspiration for those who are struggling to deal with or overcome issues in their lives, no matter what those issues could be categorised as. Her words of comfort come as a breath of fresh air in her poetry which deals with heavy, suffocating issues. She reassures the lonely that ‘the irony of loneliness is that we all feel it together at the same time,’ and reminds those who have suffered that ‘here you are living, despite it all.’ And, much like Milk and Honey, Kaur not only reassures but reinstates faith lost through her words, and here is where I will finish, with arguably my favourite quote from the whole book:

‘Like the rainbow after the rain, joy will reveal itself after sorrow.

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books

Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur

The first time I wrote about Milk & Honey was in the first ever edition of my Wishlist series, which you can read by clicking here. There was much hype surrounding the book, the implications and meanings of the poetry and almost every female within a 30 mile radius had this book in hand. Shortly after writing my wishlist post, I actually went on to buy the book. I’ve had it for a few months now, and read and re-read it I would say over ten times. I have completely fallen in love with Kaur’s prose, but I didn’t want to write a post on the book until I felt completely compelled to: until I understood the meanings and intentions behind her work, and until I felt like I could do the book justice. I think the time has come!

Firstly, I want to comment on the appearance of the book, how beautiful is the cover? I suppose it’s arguable that the book itself doesn’t affect the content: ‘do not judge a book by it’s cover’ etc, but it just looks so super pretty on my bookshelf. It had a matte black cover which feels so luxurious, and the monochrome colour scheme with a hint of honey-gold is both appropriate and gorgeous. I know it doesn’t affect the skill of Kaur’s words and the effect they have on the reader, but there is nothing quite as satisfying as a beautiful, well constructed book.

While on the topic of appearance, I’d also like to comment on the illustrations of the book. They aren’t the epitome of art; they aren’t super detailed, but they are functional, simple, and through this, become skilful and almost beautiful. The way in which the images seem to be hand-drawn almost with a ballpoint pen, makes the words even more relatable to everyday life, makes the pages adaptable to your own personal situations. Much like her words, the images are so simple that they take on their own beauty.

But now for the actual book itself: the ‘poetry.’ I quote the word ‘poetry’ because I’m not sure how far to argue that Kaur’s words do classify in this genre. Of course, the words themselves are not a novel, they do not progress into a storyline of such, but they do not seem to follow a metric, they do not form a conventional form of poetry. I’ve read much critique of Kaur’s work because of this, but isn’t this what makes the book unique, beautiful? The simplicity of her words and the uncomplicated nature of the structure, for me, is what makes the book so special. She is unapologetically brutal, she doesn’t miss a beat, and she talks of her themes with the utmost candour. For this, I have the utmost respect for Rupi Kaur. Anyone who is planning on reading this book should be aware of triggering topics such as sexual abuse and rape, topics of which she is very frank about. Her frankness and openness about such topics, are what make her a bold and incredible writer.

The book is split into four parts: The Hurting, The Loving, The Breaking and The Healing. It becomes almost a process; a cycle that I’m sure every woman has experienced or will experience at least once in her life. I love every part just as much as each other but I would say that The Healing is my favourite, it’s both empowering and reassuring. Below I have left some of my favourite quotes from each section. I fully recommend purchasing this book and giving it a read, you won’t be disappointed.

The Hurting

‘A daughter should not have to beg her father for a relationship’ (28)

‘I was made heavy: half blade and half silk, difficult to forget and not easy for the mind to follow’ (30)

‘the thing about having an alcoholic parent is an alcoholic parent doesn’t exist, simply an alcoholic who could not stay sober long enough to raise their kids’ (39)

‘you tell me quiet down cause my opinions make me less beautiful, but I was not made with a fire in my belly so I could be put out’ (30)

The Loving

‘I want to be so complete I could light a whole city and then I want to have you cause the two of us combined could set it on fire’ (59)

‘You might not have been my first love but you were the love that made all the other loves irrelevant’ (63)

‘you look like you smell of honey and no pain, let me have a taste of that’ (66)

‘how do you turn a forest fire like me so soft I turn into running water’ (65)

The Breaking

‘don’t mistake salt for sugar: if he wants to be with you he will, it’s that simple’ (85)

‘I didn’t leave because I stopped loving you, I left because the longer I stayed the less I loved myself’ (95)

‘I am a museum full of art but you had your eyes shut’ (100)

‘I had to leave, I was tired of allowing you to make me feel anything less than whole’ (107)

‘You cannot leave me and have me too, I cannot exist in two places at once – when you ask if we can still be friends’ (136)

The Healing

‘Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself’ (153)

‘If you were born with the weakness to fall, you were born with the strength to rise’ (156)

‘fall in love with your solitude’ (161)

‘your body is a museum of natural disasters, can you grasp how stunning that is?’ (173)

‘the world gives you so much pain and here you are making gold out of it – there is nothing purer than that’ (185)

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