Book #11

Atonement by Ian McEwan

On a hot summer day in 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives.

I spent four days trying my best to persevere with this novel. I had it down as one of those novels everyone loves, but which I just cannot drum up support for. I have never changed my opinion on a book so severely in my life; I almost gave up before I hit the one hundred page mark, and by the final page I was overwhelmed by McEwan's strokes of mastery.

The novel is separated into four very interesting parts, which differ in their narrative style. The first part is incredibly slow in the making, and was the main reason I almost gave up on the story completely. Once this part reached its conclusion, I felt guilty for hating it. After the following three parts, and the novel, were over, I understood why the beginning had lagged. The reason for this, and the ways in which each part of the story interested me, cannot be discussed, as one can only understand the technique once McEwan delivers his final twist. Having spent most of the novel relishing the variety, and wondering why McEwan had made it this way, the moment of realisation felt like the quenching of a thirst.

The portrayal of Briony is effortless, yet wonderful. She's a preoccupied thirteen year old, still content with the daily rituals of a child, yet on the brink of becoming a young woman. She has some sensible and intelligent thoughts and motives, but struggles to convey these in a mature way. Despite this, she thinks herself wise beyond her years, and can't grasp why no one else sees this. Life frustrates her: no one takes her seriously enough, and all she wants is to please the adults and control her little cousins. McEwan writes her perfectly; I'm sure I was this little girl at one point. Briony's fatal flaw is allowing her childhood fantasies take over, and her subsequent actions to send the lives of others spiralling out of line.

Many reviews of this novel slate McEwan for 'blaming' a child for the crime she committed. Atonement is a catalogue of regret, grief, and an unachieved need for reparation; it's self-torture, guilt, and sixty years worth of pain. None of these things are realised until almost the final page, but they are worth holding on for.

But, the ending! The ending blew me to pieces. I didn't see it coming, but the real heart-wrench is that it's so consistent, and I should have known; the type of ending where you have to read the book again knowing the outcome, and knowing you'll see McEwan's talent on a much larger scale. Absolutely gorgeous.