Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan
Preview… I am a book person through and through. I’m really not much one for films. It is rare indeed that a movie will capture my attention to such an extent that it entices me into reading the original version of the story. This was the case with Ian McEwan’s “Atonement.” The 2007 film adaptation completely blew me away. I could see why it had achieved a plethora of Oscar nominations, including best picture.
I assigned the novel to the Ann Arbor Classics Book Group, almost on a whim, to give the group an innovative and illustrious love story to contemplate for the month of February. What a great selection I had stumbled upon!
At just 13 years of age, Briony Tallis has all of the makings of a budding novelist, including an intense desire to know more about her world, a large vocabulary and a vivid, often wild, imagination. It is the juxtaposition of these three traits that lands our lovers in trouble. Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, has grown up beside Robby Turner, the son of a domestic servant, and never thought much of him until the two have a peculiar tete a tete aided by a Ming vase and a Triton fountain. Briony’s muddled understanding of this event compounded by other incidents, like her reading of a secret, yet misplaced, note that twice made use of a vulgar term for the female anatomy and her walking in on Cecilia and Robbie as they had physically come together in passion along the shelves of the library, lead her to believe that Robbie is a sex-crazed maniac who is planning an attack on her innocent and unwitting sister.
Later that evening, Briony witnesses the rape of her cousin. Though the events are obscured by the thick darkness of the night, she is sure that her cousin’s attacker is none other than the psychopathic Robbie. Convinced that she “saw him”—whether with her mind or her eyes is beside the point—she gives testimony to the authorities and lands Robbie behind bars. Knowing of Robbie’s innocence and upset by Briony’s impropriety, Cecilia estranges herself from the family.
Some five years later, Briony, now 18 years old, is beginning to realize that she may have wrongly placed blame on Robbie. To make atonement, she first distances herself from her passion of studying writing at Cambridge and enrolls as a nurse to the wartime army. Robbie, given the choice of more jail time or conscription, joins the military and is deployed to France, becoming an active party in World War II.
I won’t tell you what happens beyond this point. But know this — you’d be doing yourself a great service if you were to pick up a copy of this unique and inspiring story of love, redemption and imagination.
You may like this book if… you have an active imagination, one that might have gotten you into trouble at some point, you are interested in the time period in which the story is set, you yourself are or once were an aspiring writer, a soldier or a healthcare worker, you have had love that has gotten away, you have made mistakes and desperately desire to somehow set things right, you enjoy the push and pull of vivid imagery, you like watching a character grow up over time, you are a big “what if” thinker, you believe in retribution and redemption.
You may not like this book if…you have no desire to get stuck inside of the mind of a flawed character who is unable to distinguish the lines of reality and imagination, you don’t like drawn out descriptions of scenes and objects, you don’t believe that so much bad luck should befall relatively good and decent people, it troubles you to think how much damage a naïve thirteen year old girl can do to the lives of others, you have a hard time stomaching gory war or hospital scenes.