Atonement Paperback – 2 May 2002
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"A magnificent novel" (Independent)
"A superb achievement" (New York Times)
"The best thing he has ever written" (Observer)
"He is this country's unrivalled literary giant...a fascinatingly strange, unique and gripping novel" (Independent on Sunday)
"McEwan's best novel so far, his masterpiece" (Evening Standard)
"A beautiful and majestic fictional panorama" (John Updike)
"Subtle as well as powerful, adeptly encompassing comedy as well as atrocity, Atonement is a richly intricate book... A superb achievement" (Sunday Times)
"Atonement is a masterpiece...it is also an elegy to a time which, however volatile, still had certainties" (The Times)
"An evocative depiction of the dangers of innocence and ignorance in the face of uncomfortable reality." (Herald)
"Brilliantly explores the currents of guilt, shame and anger... Utterly satisfying, complete" (Scotsman)
On the hottest day of the summer of 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge. By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl's imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.See all Product description
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The narrative at its core starts like Downton Abbey but phases into scenes that make that first 30mins of Saving Private Ryan feel pedestrian . Start to end this is a technical tour de force of wordmanship....the author must be at the peak of his powers. That would be enough but the structure into which this has been folded is quite superb.The story has been skillfully wrapped up into an essay on novel writing itself and there is even a segment - delivered as a rejection letter from a publisher - that appears to be a commentary on an earlier draft of the novel you are reading.
Best thing I have read in a long time. Maybe ever. And one i suspect that will reward a revisit.
The first, set in a country house during the oppressively hot summer of 1935, is the build up to the commission of a terrible crime. The offence is the false accusation made by one of the three main characters, Briony, against another. She knows the accusation is at best doubtful, and probably false, but she persists in it, even under oath, to the point of wrecking the life chances of a man who isn’t just innocent but also did her nothing but good.
This is the crime for which atonement must be made.
Five years later, we find ourselves plunged, again in sweltering heat, into the middle of the British Army’s catastrophic retreat in front of German armoured troops through Northern France to Dunkirk. This is the most powerful account I have read of the torment felt by individual men, especially a wounded man, struggling to keep up with what was practically a rout – undisciplined, chaotic and painful. It’s a tribute to the research McEwan carried out at the Imperial War Museum in London that he was able to capture the atmosphere of that harrowing time, and further proof of his outstanding qualities as a writer that he could convey them so vividly.
And the third nightmare is the one experienced again by Briony, in a first step towards atonement, as she trains to be a nurse at a hospital recognisable as St Thomas’s in London. That culminates in an extraordinary day of frightening and intense work, as she nurses wounded men from the Dunkirk evacuation. McEwan gives us a detailed account of the many hours she works, with men lightly injured, with men suffering terrible but treatable wounds, with men who cannot be saved.
Finally, there is a kind of coda in which McEwan deepens the dreamlike feeling of the novel still further. Because he leaves us wondering whether what he has given us is a novel of his own creation, or one written by Briony herself, a character he created. We see her going from a first attempt at writing the story, rejected by a publisher who nonetheless gives her excellent advice on how to improve it, to the final work, the one we’ve just read. And she asks us whether she hasn’t told the story as it deserves to be told. She tells us that she could have changed its details is significant ways but chose not to, and calls on us, the readers, to agree that she was right.
This reader is sure she is. My view is that Briony turned an indifferent first draft into an excellent novel. And Ian McEwan did well to make her work, and his own, available to us.
One thing that stood out for me when reading Atonement was McEwan's ability to force his readers to connect with his characters emotionally; whether positively or negatively.
I don't want to say anything else in fear of spoiling any plots etc but I shall end my review by saying that although saddening, the books epilogue was one of the most satisfying, beautiful and heart warming, whilst still remaining realistic I have ever read.