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

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