Review: Atonement

by Ian McEwan



I picked up the recommendation for Atonement from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, and I also wanted to read it because the film adaptation was quite successful. It took a few days for me to get over the utter disappointment of The Historian and start on this novel. It soon turned out I couldn’t read it before bed, because I would keep reading it until midnight. I fully intended to go to sleep at 10 o’clock last night, but Atonement thought otherwise. I was quite delighted with this turn of events–it cleaned out the bad taste of The Historian beautifully.

On a fine summer day in 1935, thirteen year old Briony Tallis watches her sister, Cecilia, take off her clothes and dive into their mansion’s fountain, while Robbie Turner, their charlady’s son and their father’s protege, watches. By the end of the day, Robbie and Cecilia have discovered their love for each other, and Briony has committed an unspeakable crime against them; these are actions that color their entire lives.

McEwan has a marvelous way of creating suspense. Part One deals entirely with that fateful day in 1935, with chapters showing it from different characters’ perspective, often overlapping. Part One is lush, beautiful, and almost sinister in its suspense, once the reader realizes exactly what Briony is going to do. It moves from Briony’s childish attempt at a play to the horror of what she has wrought beautifully. This suspense keeps up through the entire novel, right up to the end, when Briony gets a chance to speak for herself. It makes for a book you cannot put down–you must know the truth.

The characters are magnificently human. Cecilia spends her last summer after college at home, feeling an obligation to stay there and a deep desire to leave. Briony fancies herself a magnificent writer, but almost comes to tears when her cousins ‘mangle’ her play. Robbie feels awkward around Cecilia, whom he loves. Biony will break your heart with all she misunderstands, and what she does with that information. Part Two deals with Robbie’s experience in the war, especially during the Dunkirk evacuation, which is horrifying and so human–once he’s finally at Dunkirk, he daydreams about walking all the way back to where he started to bury a body he saw in a tree. In Part Three, we meet Briony as a nurse, whose strict regimen is an escape from the guilt that gnaws away at her. McEwan manages to climb inside his characters’ head almost effortlessly, switching from Robbie to Briony to Cecilia without fail. They’re each distinctly and heartily realized, and it is this that makes this novel such a tragedy–the implications of Briony’s crime hurt such real characters, but she committed her crime out of love and the folly of youth.

The descriptions are lush and intertwining. Cecilia spends a few hours getting ready for a dinner party, leaving a black dress and a pink dress on the floor of her bedroom. When Briony comes in to take a letter of hers, she marvels at what a mess her sister can live in, almost tripping over the abandoned dresses. While McEwan’s descriptions are beautiful, this is their most impressive element–these small, overlapping details that mean different things to different people. It serves to reinforce the nature of misunderstanding at the heart of the novel.

I may not be able to read Atonement again for a while, I have to say. It’s brutal, especially the reveal at the end. Robbie’s wartime experiences and Briony’s experiences as a nurse in London affected me deeply. It’s marvelously beautiful, but brutal. Its realism is almost too much, but it is necessary–the novel needs it to express the true tragedy of the situation. This isn’t a melodrama; this is life, as these characters know it.  It’s immensely enjoyable, and immensely heartbreaking. It really stays with you.

It’s quite a concise novel, I have to say, but I think its readability compounds that. It feels as though there’s not a hair out of place, as if everything needs to be there for you to realize exactly what has occurred here. It’s quite a marvelous achievement. I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t like or found wrong about it.

Bottom line: Atonement is a beautiful and brutal novel about forgiveness, magnificently executed. You will not be able to put it down, and it will break your heart.

I rented this book from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Atonement

  1. Pingback: Page to Screen: Atonement « The Literary Omnivore

  2. Pingback: Booking Through Thursday: 2009 in Review « The Literary Omnivore

  3. Pingback: Giveaway: Atonement « The Literary Omnivore

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