Wednesday, May 21, 2008


When it comes to Atonement, I'm arriving late to the party. I have been aware of the novel almost since it was first published and I know of the major motion picture produced from its story but, for various reasons, it has taken me several years to get around to reading it.

Ian McEwan has written a complicated, multi-layered book that is simply beautiful when considered as a whole. It is a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, a love story, a war novel, a mystery and an author’s reflections on the art of fiction writing, all rolled into one. The book is structured in three distinctive sections, each with a very different story to tell, and an epilogue that flashes forward more than 50 years.

Part One, set in 1935, introduces thirteen-year old Briony Tallis, an aspiring novelist even at that age, who has a vivid imagination but a limited understanding of the motivations and emotions of the adults around her. Her imagination takes over when from a distance she witnesses a scene between her older sister, Cecelia, and the charwoman’s son, Robbie, at the fountain in front of the family home. Imagining that Robbie has forced her sister to strip to her underwear and immerse herself in the fountain, Briony is filled with conflicting emotions. As the day goes on, she becomes more and more certain that Robbie is a danger to her sister and is so convinced that he is evil that her imagination leads her to identify him as responsible for a sexual assault that occurs that night.

Part Two picks up the story some five years later in France where Robbie, who has been freed from prison to join the fight against Hitler, is part of a British army retreating to Dunkirk in hopes of being evacuated to England in time to fight another day. Painfully carrying a piece of shrapnel in his side, he realizes that he is responsible for his own survival and slowly works his way to the coast with two others. But by the time he gets there to experience the chaos and further slaughter of the Dunkirk beaches his wound is causing him serious complications.

Part Three focuses on the now eighteen-year old Briony who has moved to London to study nursing at exactly the point at which her training hospital is overrun by casualties from the Dunkirk slaughter. Her experiences mature her in more ways than one and she longs to somehow undo the wrong she committed against Robbie and Cecelia who has been estranged from the family ever since Robbie’s imprisonment as a convicted rapist.

Finally, there is the epilogue set in 1999 in which Briony, now a respected elderly novelist joins family to celebrate her seventy-seventh birthday, a section of the book in which McEwan has stashed one final surprise for his readers. This is an ending that readers will likely react to differently, some in surprise, some in admiration, and others in frustration and even a little anger.

Atonement paints a vivid picture of pre-war England and the days immediately after the British army collapse in France caused most Londoners to expect German bombers and troops to appear at any time. It explores the emotions of both those seeking to atone for transgressions against others and those who suffered those transgressions and find it hard to forgive or forget them. It studies the “truths” of fiction and what writers and their readers should expect from each other.

I may have gotten there late but this is one party I’m happy I didn’t miss.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. I'm glad you liked this. I really enjoyed part three and the epilogue. I was surprised and found it quite striking. Unfortunately my second experience with McEwan, Saturday, was not nearly as powerful.

  2. You're not the only one who was late to the Atonement party: I read it about two years ago, and my first reaction was, "Why haven't I gotten to this sooner?!" Those of you on the edge shouldn't make the same mistake I did.

    Oh, and try On Chesil Beach too. Not quite as good as Atonement, but then little is; the link goes to my (overly?) extended discussion of the novel.

  3. I just read Atonement too, after the movie came out. I much preferred it to the movie and am looking forward to reading more of McEwan.

  4. I loved this book, and was definitely surprised by the ending. However, I wasn't angry at the ending because I felt that it was 'fair' and not something that the author pulled out of the air. It's something that I felt like I could have figured out if I had been paying attention.

  5. Nicely encapsulated, Sam. I am a huge fan of this book. I've read pretty much everything of McEwan's (until Chesil Beach which after an excerpt I have no interest in). Atonement is his masterpiece as far as I'm concerned - layer upon layer or the personal and the historical; such complex interweaving - it's hard to imagine how he can top himself!

  6. I'm still going to arrive later, so don't eat all the potato chips.

    It's one of those I know I have to read (it's up there with The Kite Runner for me), because I've heard so much about them. I will...eventually.

    I have a reluctance of reading anything that uses the World Wars as a backdrop, and I don't know where it comes from-- I've probably enjoyed more of said books than I haven't.

  7. I was a late arrival too (my wife read it several years before me, and doubted my sanity for not having read it) but absolutely loved the book. One of the best I've ever read. Incidentally, I read Atonement immediately after Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and I thought McEwan's second section (the retreat to Dunkirk) was every bit as harrowing as McCarthy's novel.

  8. Hey, Matt, great to hear from you after so long. I think my favorite section was the second one, the Dunkirk descriptions. That was such a horrible situation for the stranded soldiers and for everyone in England having to watch the slaughter from across the channel. It is the stuff of nightmares.

    It's my only experience with McEwan to this point and I'm not sure when I'll jump in with another one.

  9. Jake, thanks for the link to your review. I may just make that one of the next few books I read because I've heard good things about it. Nice review, thanks.

  10. Which do you have in mind for your next McEwan, bybee? I've seen mixed reviews on several of his other books and, in a way, I'm afraid to spoil my enthusiasm for his work by choosing the wrong next work of his to read.

  11. Lisa, my reaction was much like yours. I wondered if maybe I hadn't been paying enough attention earlier in the book and may have missed some obvious clues...but if so, that's my fault, not McEwan's. I didn't feel at all betrayed by the surprise ending.

  12. Ted, if not "Chesil Beach," which one do you recommend next?

  13. John, I stashed an extra bowl of chips for you behind the couch...don't let 'em go stale on you.

    "Kite Runner" is another favorite of mine and it's well worth picking up whenever you get the chance.

    I'm fascinated by books that use either of the "world wars" as backdrops mainly, I think, because I'm able to pick up a feel for what it must have been like to live during those years.

    The whole Dunkirk experience fascinates me now that I've read two books using that retreat as background. Before reading the fiction, I really didn't understand what had happened and how close a call it was for England's survival.

  14. Pete, that's a great comparison and one that hadn't crossed my mind. I think in many ways it was even more harrowing than what McCarthy described in "The Road"...much more realistic, for sure.

  15. Pete: I was reading Atonement and The Road at the same time and had a jarring sense of synchronicity arising from the two books' passages about a protagonist fumbling with a battered/torn map in potentially dangerous terrain.

    Apparently, in writing the Dunkirk section McEwan drew on his father's memories of the retreat. In fact, the bit about the motorcycle that carries two injured soldiers (one steering and the other controlling the pedals) was based on his father's memory of being in that position.