While I was procrastinating starting The Golden Notebook, I took an evening to read Atonement by Ian McEwan. My interest had been raised by the movie adapation, and I luckily found a copy at the local book sale last year. Plus, it’s hard not to be intrigued by a book when words and phrases like “devastating”, “great betrayal” and “secret” are used.
Atonement tells the story of how Briony Tallis, a precocious, naive 13-year-old when the novel begins, ruins lives when she misunderstands the budding intimacy between her older sister Cecilia and the lowly, brilliant Robbie Turner and mistakenly trusts her untrustworthy cousin, Lola. The novel is divided into parts. The first part takes place on the Tallis’ country estate on a very hot day in England in 1935. The next two parts take place in 1940 and into England and France during World War 2 and explores the repercussions of Briony’s accusation as her sister Cecilia has cut herself off from her family and is a nurse in London; Robbie has joined the army after spending time in prison, and Briony herself gives up her chance to go to university and becomes a nurse as well, where she begins to understand exactly what she did and begins to see the truth of that day. It is at this point that the theme of atonement begins. The fourth part is set in 1999. Briony has become a successful novelist but is dying, and her reflections reveal a shocking plot twist.
(note to self: must work on summaries) Hmm. It was hard for me to find a concise summary of the book that didn’t give the plot away, so you are stuck with my summary.
I really, really liked this book. It was a very quick read, but it was rich. In the first part, you could feel the tension. The extreme heat feels like a character as well. It contributes to the simmering sexual overtones of the first part: Sweat. Clinging clothes. Water. Steam. Languor. As well as rising tempers. Crazy behavior…some of the characters seem to be crazy from the heat.
McEwan’s tone is very lyrical. There are lots of feelings and moods in the book, even as they are wrapped in a traditional narrative structure. You
Interestingly, though the twists and turns of the plot are fascinating, I don’t find any of the characters likable. Robbie may be the most likable, but he’s not overly likable. I think part of it is that the characters did not seem fully drawn to me. They seemed primarily like vehicles McEwan was using to explore the theme of atonement. I’m sure you could say that every author uses his or her characters as “vehicles” to explore a theme, but in McEwan’s case, you really felt his hand manipulating them. I found Briony especially unlikable, which I suppose is to be expected since her misunderstanding is the catalyst. However, I really, really disliked her. I wanted to throttle her. And frankly, I don’t think she suffered enough. Even though it was a misunderstanding, her actions ruined lives forever. I’m not sure if there can be enough atonement for that. Maybe there can be, but I didn’t feel like she atoned enough or that her efforts to atone were enough.
The book’s style reminded me of the writings of Virginia Woolf, especially Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse. That novel is so stream of consciousness and lyrical that you could easily miss a crucial detail if you weren’t reading carefully. The same was true with Atonement. The last part of the book seems somewhat random and rambling, and if the reader’s attention strayed, it was easily possible to overlook the major twist at the end.
If you liked Atonement, you might also like The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman.