BR: ‘The Smell of Apples’ by Mark Behr

This is an unusual novel as, despite being aimed at adults, it is told through the eyes of a young boy, eleven-year-old Marnus, who grows up in an Afrikaans family in 1970s South Africa. At first his life appears ordinary, but as the story progresses the reader becomes aware of the hypocrisy, secrets and lies of the adults he looks up to as role models. The main narrative is interspersed with flash-forwards into Marnus’ future as a disillusioned soldier in the South African army.

‘The Smell of Apples’ is a very understated, subtle novel, with many things implied but nothing ever spelled out. One of the most disconcerting things about it is the sweeping statements Marnus makes, such as ‘the Masai never wash […] and they drink real blood’. It is difficult to tell whether he comes up with these things himself or is quoting from the adults who have indoctrinated him with their beliefs. Also disconcerting is the idea that ‘in life there is no escape from history‘, which adds a melancholy overtone to the book, as the reader knows that this naive, innocent boy will be unable to escape from the actions of his forebears. I thought Behr depicted childhood well; Marnus’ narrative voice seemed disjointed and blithe like a child’s, and his obsessions with things such as whales and fishing rang true.

One thing that I would have liked to find out was what happened to Frikkie and Zelda in the future, as we learned about the fortunes of Marnus’ immediate family but not much more – and, even then, Ilse was brushed over. I think this would have added a greater sense of closure to the story. Perhaps, however, the unsettled feeling I was left with at the end of the novel was the author’s intention. It is certainly not an uplifting or jolly story, but I would recommend it as an interesting if disturbing insight into the Afrikaner mentality, while the beautiful setting and lyrical account of childhood are good for escapism.

BR: ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

‘Atonement’ begins on a summer’s morning in 1935, when thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is watching her sister and their old family friend Robbie Turner arguing by the fountain in the garden of their country estate. By the evening, she has taken an action which will change all three of their lives forever. The novel follows the consequences of this crime through the wartime years, right up to the end of the twentieth century. The style of writing is laidback and descriptive; with its three-act structure, flexible viewpoints and preoccupation with the role of the writer as an artist it was reminiscent of ‘To the Lighthouse.’

My opinion of the novel fluctuated throughout. I thought McEwan’s ability to choose exactly the right words to describe a situation was impressive, yet I felt that sometimes his descriptions of household furniture were unnecessarily lengthy. I enjoyed the sense of mystery and impending doom that permeated Book One and the vivid and honest descriptions of war in Books Two and Three, but I couldn’t decide whether I liked the main characters or found them irritating. I certainly wasn’t convinced that Cecilia, who found Robbie annoying and had barely spoken to him for years, would realise within the course of a day that she harboured an all-consuming passion for him and was ready to forgive him anything.

It was only when I read the epilogue that I made up my mind. It offered such a clever twist, providing an entirely different perspective on the rest of the novel and allowing the reader to look back on it as a coherent whole rather than disjointed sections. Its comment on the relationship between novel and writer was extremely profound, and I was moved by the portrayal of the major characters sixty years down the line. It almost made me want to go back and read it again, to take it all in under a new light. For this reason, I would recommend ‘Atonement.’