BR: ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

‘Atonement’ begins on a summer’s morning in 1935, when thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is watching her sister and their old family friend Robbie Turner arguing by the fountain in the garden of their country estate. By the evening, she has taken an action which will change all three of their lives forever. The novel follows the consequences of this crime through the wartime years, right up to the end of the twentieth century. The style of writing is laidback and descriptive; with its three-act structure, flexible viewpoints and preoccupation with the role of the writer as an artist it was reminiscent of ‘To the Lighthouse.’

My opinion of the novel fluctuated throughout. I thought McEwan’s ability to choose exactly the right words to describe a situation was impressive, yet I felt that sometimes his descriptions of household furniture were unnecessarily lengthy. I enjoyed the sense of mystery and impending doom that permeated Book One and the vivid and honest descriptions of war in Books Two and Three, but I couldn’t decide whether I liked the main characters or found them irritating. I certainly wasn’t convinced that Cecilia, who found Robbie annoying and had barely spoken to him for years, would realise within the course of a day that she harboured an all-consuming passion for him and was ready to forgive him anything.

It was only when I read the epilogue that I made up my mind. It offered such a clever twist, providing an entirely different perspective on the rest of the novel and allowing the reader to look back on it as a coherent whole rather than disjointed sections. Its comment on the relationship between novel and writer was extremely profound, and I was moved by the portrayal of the major characters sixty years down the line. It almost made me want to go back and read it again, to take it all in under a new light. For this reason, I would recommend ‘Atonement.’

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