I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan and it all started with this book. I read Atonement several months before the famous film came out, and I still don’t know which I love more. But this review isn’t about the film – it’s about the book.
Atonement is an epic WWII saga centred around Cecelia and Briony Tallis and Robbie Turner. Robbie is a young man whose mother works for the wealthy Tallis family. When the book starts Briony is a 13 year old girl in the first flushes of puberty and nursing a crush on Robbie. Her elder sister Cecelia is a lofty girl in her early twenties who, even though she went to Cambridge with Robbie, barely speaks to him. It’s in the first flush of summer that we are set the scene for not only a shocking turn of events but ones that have repercussions until the present day.
We delve deep into the psyche of these characters: what jealousy and rage can make us do, how we are brought to forgiveness and perhaps most tellingly, how we atone for the pain we may afflict on others. This is a book that, whilst a period piece, rises to greatness because of how at its core, it talks about humanity, what it means to love, and how we face the horrors of what humans can do to each other.
McEwan’s writing has always managed to focus the reader whilst being ambiguous when it needs to be. The shifting perspectives of character and the confusion that both Robbie, Cecelia and Briony feel within themselves is perfectly paralleled with the hazy, slow paced writing. By contrast, the sterile matter of factness that is used at the end helps to convey the stark horror of the shocking twist at the end.
The focus of the novel is Briony’s character, and the sad circumstances she finds herself in. Several times she is placed in the role of a God-like figure: a playwright, a lone witness, a nurse. She alone has the power to make life changing decisions – but she isn’t an infallible God.
Atonement is more than a love story. It’s a story which tells us that despite all the motivational speakers that say we have the power to make things different, that’s just a delusion. Some decisions we make last lifetimes, and some are sadly irreversibly. If we walk away from them we walk away forever.
There are many reasons to love Atonement, and every person I’ve talked to about why they like it has different reasons. It’s one of my favourite books, one that brought me out of the novels of the past and into the world of the great novelists of the present. I hope you read it and love it too.