Atonement by Ian McEwan

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Atonement by Ian McEwan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A superbly crafted book set just before the Second World War which explores the nature of guilt and how atonement is made. Recommended reading.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2002
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099429791

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A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book

On a hot summer's day in 1935 thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is planning the performance of a play which she has written in honour of her brother Leon. The actors are her cousins, fifteen-year-old Lola and the nine-year-old twins Jackson and Pierrot. Also there, home from college, is Briony's sister, Cecilia, who has confused emotions about Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis' cleaning lady. Whilst watering some flowers Cecilia and Robbie break a vase and Cecilia strips to her underwear to jump into the fountain and retrieve the fragments. Robbie is startled and Briony, who sees what happens, doesn't know what to make of it. It is the fountain which is to change everything.

Robbie decides to write a letter to Cecilia to explain his feelings for her. In fact he writes two letters, one of which is more suggestive than the other and in a Freudian slip it's this letter which Briony delivers to Cecilia - after she's read it. Briony's imagination is fertile and vivid and when she later interrupts Cecilia and Robbie's lovemaking she interprets this as an attack on Cecilia. Later that evening the twins run away and in the search for them Briony interrupts a sexual attack on her cousin Lola and is so convinced that the rapist is Robbie that he's arrested despite Cecilia's protesting his innocence. The letter which he'd sent to Cecilia condemned him in everyone's eyes.

This is, without doubt, a superb book. The writing is masterly. In the first part of the book the events are momentous but there's still a sense of drifting, going nowhere. It's unlike any McEwan that I've read before but it's a perfect evocation of that period just before the Second World War when we hurtled unknowingly, unthinkingly into Hell. The second part, when we follow Robbie at Dunkirk, is more the McEwan that I know and where he's possibly strongest. I could smell the battle and taste the defeat. It's an elegant refutation of the 'heroic rescue' which has found its place in British history. How small is Briony's crime in the context of such carnage?

It's a tribute to the book to say that it's very difficult to review. I have a feeling of being reluctant to mention an incident or a setting as it really should be met in the context of the story. It's complex, many-layered and brilliantly crafted. There are nods to so many other books, from Northanger Abbey, to A Passage to India, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, even Henry James. I was left with a sense, not of pleasure at being reminded of those works, but regret that there were most certainly others that I didn't see.

I'm in a quandary. The book is undoubtedly brilliant but it left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied and I can only think that this comes down to two points. The first is that I found myself too conscious of the literary device of writing a book about writing a book, too conscious of just how clever McEwan is to really appreciate the story - which is, after all, why I read the book. The other point which worries me more is that I couldn't really warm to the characters and particularly Briony Tallis. Perhaps this is because McEwan was a man writing as a woman doing what mostly men would have done at the time he was writing about. Somewhere along the line it just didn't work for me.

You might appreciate Thief by Maureen Gibbon.

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Magda said:

I think quite a few people have a problem with McEwan because of him being too clever and visibly so. I love it, though. But I have not read this one.

Sue replied:

But you're clever, Magda! He just makes me feel inadequate.