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.