Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement opens on a scorching summer day in 1935 at the medieval estate of the Tallis family. Thirteen-year-old Briony composes a play to celebrate the return of her elder brother. While taking a break from rehearsal, she watches her older sister Cecilia and Robbie, the son of their servant having an argument over an old family vase. When it drops into the water, Cecilia strips down to her underthings, jumps into the water, retrieves the pieces, and darts away. Whatever Briony sees makes absolutely no sense to her young and impressionable mind, but it does provide the first spark of fire that later flames into something bigger and shapes her melodramatic thoughts.


Meanwhile, Robbie comes back home, and out of frustration in his inability to reveal his love for Cecilia fancies up a plan to confess to her regardless of their argument. He writes down several drafts, rushes to the family estate, and asks Briony to deliver the letter to Cecilia. However, because of a mistake, Robbie gives her the wrong letter- one with a particularly coarse sexual fantasy about Cecilia.


Briony opens the letter and reads it. Her young and untrained mind is unable to comprehend its right meaning. Briony takes on the new role of defending Cecilia from the ‘sex-maniac Robbie. However, Robbie and Cecilia are so caught up in their affair and feelings for each other that they fail to notice or care.


Briony’s plight peaks when two of her younger cousins run away from the house during the celebration. As a dear party of adults goes out looking for the two children, a frightened Briony thinks she knows what kind of situation they are in. Although she is scared, she feels that it is necessary to keep going with the heroic fiction going on in her head, and the course of her actions interrupts a rape in progress.


She finds her 16-year-old cousin Lola bedraggled and distraught. Briony’s mind immediately identifies the rapist who flees away into the darkness and doesn’t even see clearly, as Robbie. She boldly admits to having seen the criminal and ultimately climaxes the advancing plot in her mind. Despite the pitch darkness of the nights, her cousin’s lack of confirmation and despite the occurrence of contradictions in her narrative, she testifies against Robbie eventually destroying several lives.


A few sub-plots follow the initial plot. The first one is an acrid graphic account about Robbie, who is fleeing the German invasion of France during the Second World War while serving in the British Army. The second one tells us about Briony’s gruesome experiences as a nurse at a London Hospital as soldiers arrive wounded from war. She is remorseful of her past actions and wants to take back her statement and clear Robbie’s name. Her atonement, according to her, depends on Robbie’s survival in the war. We also learn that Robbie and Cecilia have been corresponding. Cecilia has not spoken to her parents or brother since 1935 as they sided with Briony against Robbie, and there has been no contact between Cecilia and Briony. And the last part is set ahead of 1999, and it masterfully complicates the events and whatever happened that night at the Tallis estate. These parts are incomparable to each other but they cumulatively produce an intense exploration of a guilty conscience and its struggle with absolution.

Atonement is truly a masterpiece told by Ian McEwan. It strings the lives of Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia together and then pulls them apart against an intricately penned backdrop of misinterpretations, na├»ve understanding of life, horrors of the war, and never-ending social differences. We see most of the book through Briony’s eyes. She is the most important character in the story because the plot takes place due to her incorrect apprehension of things she is untrained for. The story starts when she is 13 and goes on till she attains the age of 77. However, her horrible actions at the age of 13, not only shatter the lives of Robbie and Cecilia but also changes the course of her life. Cecilia is the complete opposite of her younger sister Briony. She is untidy, unkempt, and ‘not as alive as Briony’ according to the latter. Nevertheless, she loves her sister a lot and a single mistake on Briony’s part strains their relationship for life. Robbie has his own hardships to face. He is only 24 when falsely accused of rape. His young years wane away in the prison and then in war. We see his life wasted, his dreams shattered, and his love unfulfilled because of somebody else.

The story is like an unexploded bomb with little dissolving details throughout the novel. These details wreak beautiful havoc on everything that it crosses. Mc Ewan’s style of prose is dynamic and richer, something that modern writers only aspire to. However, the novel is controlled. Readers somewhat get deprived of truly harsh realities and lose themselves in the pleasures and woes that the author provides them with. The plot is overladen with a lot of literary influences chiefly from Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and Jane Austen.

This book is not for people who dislike ambiguity and relish a definite ending. It’s the sort of book whose underlying themes are magnified and stick with you till the very end.

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