Monday, June 04, 2012

169. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan's Atonement* (2001, Anchor Books; 351) carries several themes. In addition of it being a story of childhood, forgiveness and love, it is also a book about writing. The story follows the Tallises from before the war (WWII) to the later part of the Twentieth Century. In particular, it follows Briony and Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner as they come against each other which will later change the lives of those involved.

Robbie Turner's mother works for the Tallises. Jack Tallis, an absentee father and husband, has taken it upon himself to pay for Robbie's education. Robbie's age-mates is Cecilia and after Cambridge, the former having performed better than the latter to the subtle disgust of Emily Tallis - their mother - had decided to pursue further education in medicine. However, there is an unacknowledged affinity manifesting itself in some sort of sexual tension but one of which the man knows and acknowledges his status in the household, as one of a servant and not a parvenu; the reality that fairy tales belong to the imagination and it isn't always that the beast marries the beauty. Thus, Turner keeps his space and offers Cecilia the respect her surname demands, as any provider of provisioning will demand. This attitude of his infuriates the lady so much so that she openly shows her disgust.

As both were going through their personal teenage stress and thinking of each other in the privacy of their minds, Cecilia's younger sister, thirteen year-old Briony, was also making a huge jump across teenage-hood into adulthood. This precocious child, too old for her age and yet too young to understand the trappings of adult life - one of those who mentally put themselves into positions their biological development cannot support, will do one thing that would hang over the family and would destroy the relationships that exist between them all. 

Briony - an imaginative, self-opinionated, naive and manipulative girl - will witness three things and, in a period where people could be jailed for mentioning certain body parts or for expressing wantonness, her inchoate understanding will be her downfall. The first will be when Briony saw or thought she saw Robbie commanding her sister beside the pool so that her sister almost naked herself before him. The second was Robbie's own mishap when he sent Briony with a letter - with a single word - to be given to Cecilia and the third, the last bit of evidence needed to complete her story, was when she caught the them in the Library. So that when the twin's - cousins of the Tallis children who had come to stay with them because their parents had separated - escaped one night and during the search Briony had come upon Lola - the twin's elder sister, older than Briony but younger than Cecilia - who was claiming someone had nearly raped her, Briony knew or thought she knew whom it was or might be.

What happened next was a series of silences, pretenses, intentional oversights, that saw Cecilia cutting ties with her family and Briony living through a life of penance. Like On Chesil Beach, McEwan set his story in a period when issues of sex, marriage and any such thing was adult-rated so that children make up their own minds, learn from whatever sources they could possibly get information from and for most cases it is from themselves, which led to a lot of theorising and conjecturing. Briony might have acted childishly and naively but she also acted out of misplaced love; for it is only love that would have made her decide to protect her elder sister. However, it was her feeling of superiority complex and the family's neglect of her emotional development and her own hyperactive mind and a self-righteous attitude, that transformed her love into something utterly negative. The family disregard of her development meant that she was left to her devices and she began to think that she was more matured and far better than all the others in her family. Yet, it was her refusal to tell the absolute truth by making her assumptions of what she thought she 'saw' the fact that destroyed her. And Briony is difficult to love at least for the first part where she played a major role. She has all the things that would make an older sibling hate her. But Cecilia was also too quiet, the exact opposite of her sister. 

The second part of the book follows Robbie as he journeyed through bombings in France as the second world war was in full swing, virtually dodging death and surviving on a promise Cecilia had given him. Haunted by the life he had to live because of a little girl's statement against his and the ravages of war, Robbie had to form the right associations if he is to it to London. The author had a way of not releasing too much information to the reader; he builds the story with the reader who had to invest into it and come out with whatever he can. Robbie was not just a character in a book, his feelings, actions and reactions were true to life: he hated Briony and still encouraged Cecilia to forgive her family.

In Atonement, McEwan took a simple scene, which could have remained a rumour, a perception, and investigated its other frays. The beautiful thing about the book is that the reader is never really sure what actually happened. 

As a book about writing, McEwan used Briony's love for writing to deal with the subject of writing: the plot, the character development, diction, narrative, rejection and the final success. In fact, the therapeutic effect of writing was also somewhat touched upon. It was a great read except that McEwan could stretch scenes and he could do so without making the read tiring. Loved it.
* Read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge


  1. Loved your review! I tried reading this book a few years ago, but couldn't get past the first chapter. Now I'm thinking I need to give it another try.

  2. An insightful and fine reivew of an interesting book.

  3. This was one of those books that immediately upon finishing gave me the feeling that I should re-read it; I thought it was amazing. And the film is quite well done, if you are so inclined. From the opening scene, I thought "oh, they HAVE made it about writing" and, indeed, though it's a different medium, they did just that.


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