on 28 September 2007
I bought my copy of Atonement around five years ago and I never seemed to get around to reading it, even though I am a big fan of Ian McEwan's work. I knew that the release of the film version is imminent, so I decided to take it with me on holiday, so that I could set myself the goal of reading it before the film comes out. When I started it I could not understand why it had taken me the best part of five years to get around to reading it. I was totally engrossed by every aspect of the book; it is very atmospheric, it has a strong narrative drive, the characters are brilliantly drawn and you care what happens to the main protagonist.
In the hot summer of 1935 thirteen year old Briony Tallis is trying to stage a play to welcome her older brother home, but her cousins are proving not to be up to the task. As she sulks in her room she notices that her sister Cecilia has stripped her clothes off and jumped into a fountain, apparently at the behest of the cleaning lady's son Robbie. Her vivid imagination transforms this scene into something very different, and when that night something truly terrible does happen, she completely misconstrues it, with consequences that will dramatically change the lives of Cecilia, Robbie and herself. McEwan brilliantly captures how a child's mind works and the ways in which a naive young girl can totally misunderstand adult passions.
The second part of the book is set during World War 2 and Robbie is desperately trying to get to Dunkirk. Cecilia and Briony have both become nurses and are dealing with the casualties of the conflict. McEwan's writing is consistently superb throughout this book, but the war scenes are incredible, being totally pervaded by a sense of danger. You have a real sense of the terror and confusion that the British forces must have experienced as they retreated from France. There is an intense immediacy to the writing in the war scenes and it is hard to believe that McEwan has no direct personal experience of being in a war zone. The horrors of war are graphically brought home, as well as the capacity of the soldiers to exhibit compassion or violence.
All of the characters are still living with the repercussions of Briony's actions from that sultry day of 1945. How will Briony atone for her crime and the promising lives that she has destroyed? She is desperate to re-establish conflict with her estranged sister and make amends to both her and Robbie. We see her character grow, develop and mature and the manner in which she attempts to redeem her earlier actions is revealed in an extraordinary twist. The whole novel is a testimony to the power of writing and the effect it can have upon our lives. If you haven't already read it, read it now because it is one of the best books written in the past decade, and is easily the best novel to come from the pen of England's finest living writer.
on 31 October 2005
I started reasing this book one saturday and I have to admit I found it very hard to put down. I'd only ever read Enduring Love of McEwan's before and found that even more exciting, mainly because of the start and the fact that there were many twists in the tale. The first part of Atonement, set in a family house and grounds in the 1930's is incredibly written- sensitive, mysterious and gripping. The plot moves on but into a different decade and focussing soley on one character, then again in part three to another character. Fans of war novels will enjoy these parts, as McEwan's depiction of war time on the battle field and in the hospitals is realistic and moving. However I found the end slightly disappointing, not really because of the story but because the perspective changes from an impartial onlooker without an identity to a character we have observed throughout the novel. I found this view slightly biased and odd to read, and although the resolution of events at the end is fascinating I found that a few details and characters in the story were overlooked.
Ok I am a big Ian McEwen fan, but whilst I may be bias I rate this as one of the top ten book written by a British author in the last twenty years.
The story is one of family conflict and deceit. The story delves into the lives of a family and close friends who one evening are bought together when a incident occurs which is covered up. Someone has to shoulder the blame and the story revolves around the consequences of the cover up and the wrongful accusation of a young family friend and how that affects not just his life but those of the family.
The story spans a period of 60 years or so but the plot entwines through the years, to climax at the very end.
I was shocked by some of the prose, especially the description of the mayhem on the roads to Dunkirk and the horrors of war, but I was greatly moved by the book and recommend it highly.
on 22 September 2001
I had to ration myself reading Atonement. At times it seems almost overwhelming: so measured and precise, yet by no means cold or unfeeling. Ian McEwan plays his best narrative tricks in this novel, and wraps this postmodern cleverness in the elevated lyrical intensity of his writing. Having only just finished reading it, it's tempting for this reader automatically to suggest Atonement is McEwan's best book; yet I don't recall before feeling quite the same sense that "This is something very special" all through a reading. As much as I love The Child in Time and Enduring Love, Atonement seems somehow to be pitched on a higher level. I found it profound, and both shocking and moving. Very highly recommended.
Though this book is only of average length, it has the feel of a big family saga, so completely does McEwan delve into the consciousness of his main characters as they attempt to cope with the long-term repercussions of a "crime" committed by Briony Tallis, a naïve 13-year-old with a "controlling demon." Briony's "wish for a harmonious, organised world denie[s] her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing," so it is doubly ironic that her attempt to "fix" what she sees as wrongdoing involving her sister and Robbie Turner, a childhood friend, becomes, in itself, a wrongdoing, one she feels compelled to deny and for which she will eventually attempt to atone.
Opening the novel in 1935, McEwan creates an intense, edgy, and almost claustrophobic mood. England is on the brink of war; Briony, a budding writer, is on the edge of adolescence; her newly graduated sister Cecilia is thinking of her future life; and Robbie is about to start medical school. The summer is unusually hot. Troubled young cousins have arrived because their parents are on the verge of divorce; Briony's mother is suffering from migraines; her father is "away," working for the government; her adored brother Leon and a friend have arrived from Cambridge; and Briony, an "almost only child," with a hypersensitive imagination, finds her world threatened.
Step by step, McEwan leads his characters to disaster, each individual action and misstep simple, explainable, and logical. The engaged reader sees numerous dramatic ironies and waits for everything to snap. When Briony finally commits her long-foreshadowed "crime," the results are cataclysmic, and the world, as they know it, ends for several characters.
Giving depth to his themes of truth, justice, honesty, guilt and innocence, and punishment and atonement, McEwan uses shifting points of view and an extended time frame. Part I is Briony's. In Part II, five years after the "crime," Robbie, now a footsoldier retreating from the French countryside to Dunkirk, continues the same themes, seeing the crimes of war, not only between the combatants but against civilians and, at Dunkirk, by the Brits against each other. In Part III, Briony, atoning for her earlier crime by working as a student nurse, rather than studying to be a writer, brings the past and present together, tending the casualties of war. The ending takes place in 1999, at her 77th birthday party.
This is a totally absorbing, fully developed novel, the kind one always yearns for and so rarely finds. The characters, the atmosphere, the lush descriptions, the sensitively treated themes, the intriguing and unusual plot, and the rare entrée into the mind of a writer, both Briony and McEwan, make this novel an absorbing experience from beginning to end. Mary Whipple
Having finished ATONEMENT four days ago, I am still digesting and marvelling over it, but want to urge anyone interested in fiction to buy it. Those who have felt short-changed by McEwen in the past should forget the thin, shoddy stuff of Amsterdam and nauseating scenes of murder and sexual perversion in previous novels. This is a masterpiece of the kind you'd never have guessed he'd write. It plays with all the traditions of mistaken adolescent narrators and upper-class country houses, a la Go-Between and Henry James, and surpasses them. I do not think I've read a more beautiful or harrowing description of making love, of anguish or of what novelists can do to real people in any recent novel.
McEwen has always been hugely talented and fascinating, but also frustrating in that his plots were never fully worked-out and his characters lacked passion so failed to involve the reader. None of these flaws are evident in ATONEMENT. I've read everything he's written since he first began, and hoped and waited for something as good as this.
on 10 April 2007
A warm summer day in 1935: thirteen-year old Briony Tallis has written her first play in honour of her brother Leon returning home, but her niece and nephews are not up to performing it. While she is sulking in her room, she sees her sister Cecilia strip of her clothes and jump into a fountain in front of the cleaning lady's son Robbie. Her ample imagination turns this scene into something it is absolutely not and when at night something awful happens she interprets it completely wrong, an interpretation that will change the lifes of herself, Cecilia and Robbie.
The second and third parts of the book are situated at the beginning of the war: the horrors of the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk and the life at a London hospital. Finally in the fourth part, set in 1999, it becomes clear that this book is indeed one big atonement.
This is an incredibly rich book and very smoothly written. It begged me to continue reading, even though the setting of the first part (a rich English family in the thirties) is not particularly interesting to me. The second and third parts very vividly describe the horrors of war and the fourth part glues the whole book together and on the other hand also provides an unexpected twist that puts part of the story in a whole new perspective. An absolute must-read.
on 26 September 2001
There seems to be a ground swell of opinion growing, which claims that this is one of THE great books. It is hard to disagree. Ian McEwan's great strength has always been not having a weakness. This book confirms that. Taking a subject matter seemingly light years away from his early fictional concerns, he weaves a tale of obstinate passions and subversive jealousies. In the process he tips a wink at most writers of `English` novels - Forster, Waugh, Woolf, Hartley, Faulks etc. - before knocking them all into a cocked hat and sailing on by. He skips through genres - the `Country House` novel, the `War` novel, the `Forbidden Love` novel - effortlessly, faultlessly altering his mode of expression for each. There are certainly writers who experiment more than Ian McEwan. Yet his ability only slightly to bend the conventions of the novel - and the expectations of the reader - strikes me as more impressive. As always he makes the reader believe in his skewed reality. He convinces the reader that his word is God. The reader does believe. The reader is convinced. The reader, however, is in for a shock...
So good you'll wish you had never read it