Atonement by Ian McEwan
Reviewed by Rima Walker
In a relatively short novel (now an acclaimed motion picture) and with richly descriptive prose almost lyrical at times, McEwan packs it all in –childhood naiveté, family relationships, love, war, guilt, redemption, the role of the artist and more. This is a great deal to work with, but McEwan does it with power and grace. Starting at the home of the wealthy Tallis family in England in 1935 and ending in 1999, McEwan tells the story of the impact on her entire family of 13 year old Briony’s childhood lie, but specifically on her older sister, Cecilia, and the man she loves, Robbie Turner, the son of the family’s charlady.
Badly misinterpreting a scene between Cecilia and Robbie she sees from afar, and later reading a letter from him to Cecilia, Briony stumbles upon them in the library of her home making love, which leads her further into her mistaken impression of Robbie as a rapist. When her cousin Lola is assaulted in the garden that night, Briony immediately assumes that Robbie is guilty and she swears to it in court, sending Robbie off to prison for some years and effectively alienating the faithful Cecilia from her family for even longer. Already living out her rich but childish fantasy life in her writings, the naïve Briony, seeking only to protect her sister and her cousin, misconstrues what she has seen and read and thus brings cataclysmic disaster to everyone around her.
The next part of the novel focuses on Robbie, released from prison to fight in WWll and to take part in the retreat and evacuation of the British troops at Dunkirk. The horrific scenes of war are devastating and so intense that they are grim reminders of the shocking opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan and just as vividly brought to life. But in the time that Robbie plows through the French countryside to the evacuation, he thinks of Cecilia and longs to be reunited with her. The result of these dreams comes out only later in the book which revolves around Briony. This is truly her story, and she is the one who must seek atonement.
We see her at first as a naive child whose romantic and sometimes hysterical nature and lack of experience and knowledge lead to a deadly mistake that reverberates throughout the lives of others and leads to disaster. Though she considers herself a writer, her jumping to a conclusion when clarity is needed is mixed with some malice and a sense of aggrandizement. This, coupled with her cousin Lola’s need to have the universe center around her, leads her to a thoughtless revelation that changes everyone’s lives. In her careless naiveté she doesn’t realize that she wields great power over others, and through her good intentions we discover that the adage has always been correct: that the best intentions can pave the road to hell. Once she discovers the results of her huge mistake, she has to suffer the guilt we would all feel in her place. She tries to find a way to redeem herself, and to undo what trouble she had caused, through hard war work in a hospital and through her writing. How she strives for this and whether or not she succeeds is for the reader to discover. There are surprises in this section concerning many of the main and peripheral characters. Our feelings for and about Briony are aptly brought out through the mastery of McEwan’s prose and knowledge of the human condition. ~