Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Sunday, 18 January 2015

About The Book
Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Series: N/A
Genre: Historical fiction, Romance, Contemporary
Age Range: 16+
Publication Date: September 17th 2001
Pages: 351 pages
Publisher: Vintage Books, Random House

On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge.
By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl's imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.


I felt like a bit of a cheat when I was given this book by my grandmother to read, as I've seen the film far too many times, way too many times actually, so I knew (or thought I knew) the plot inside out. But of course if it was the book that my favourite film of all time was based on then I knew I'd still read it eventually. Of course the book was slightly different, and naturally better, I was surprised by how true to the novel the film actually was, save for superfluous details (of which there are many) and a few scenes at the end of the book.

The thing that struck me first of all was the proportion of the book dedicated to a single day, admittedly a very important day in which we see events from various points of view and certain significant scenes are repeated at least twice in some instances. But this makes sense when you consider how massively important this single day is to the three main characters. Perhaps that's also what's quite interesting, although there are three main characters who all report different versions of events, we (or certainly I) felt like I couldn't trust any of them. Briony (who's point of view dominates the book) is a child in the first part so therefore does not understand most of what is going on, and this leads her to twisting it radically, Robbie is so keenly in love with Cecilia it becomes apparent later on that he may be projecting his own feelings onto certain events in a way that changes them. And Cecilia's disinterest and annoyance towards most members of her family mean we can't be sure how some characters actually are until we see them in other character's points of view. It's quite honestly a master-class in narrative perspective.

In terms of characters I think out of the main three, none of really that likeable. While I sympathise with Robbie massively and can't think enough the kind of impact his 'crime' must have had on his life, in the chapters that depict his life in the war he's relentless in his desperation to get home to Cecilia. And although it is understandable it doesn't do him any favours in how much I like him, it's hard to defend a character who gets a shotgun out to kill an officer just for approaching them and doing his job. I think everyone must hate thirteen year old Briony a little (or a lot) for what she did, and god knows I did, as Cecilia said she really was 'a young thirteen year old', and as a seventeen year old I did relate but I only remember acting like that when I was like eight or nine, possibly ten. But older Briony is a lot easier to sympathise with, in part two she's so wrapped up in her own pity and regret you almost want her to get over it, but in part three she's almost perfectly likeable. Cecilia is less problematic than the other two but her overall attitude is not naturally appealing and she gets a lot less time in her own view point than the other two, which is disappointing but I think I can see why McEwan did it. So much of her life, and how she feels is shown through the other two it's unnecessary to give her needless pages. This book continued my pattern of liking secondary characters as I tended to like Leon; although he's not in it a lot and the twins in part three. The three of them have hardly any time dedicated to them but I felt drawn to them for some reason; it's probably best I don't know a lot about them or I'd end up hating everyone.

The marvellous thing about this story is the way information is withheld until absolutely neccesary, of course I knew that Paul Marshall was actually Lola's rapist but readers could be fooled into thinking that Briony actually did not know who it was, or that it was Danny Hardman. Of course it's just dropped in at the end of a paragraph, and then you realise she's getting married to him and suddenly everything clicks into place. And the almost casual way in which we find out Robbie and Cecilia are dead, readers could be forgiven for thinking that they were not at her party because the grudge was still there. But of course not.

But I think my favourite thing about Atonement; is how it could be seen as the version of The Figure By The Fountain that Briony did not publish, but the one she ought to have. Especially when you consider how much time is spent on the first day, as per her original draft. But obviously in part two it deviates to the true events, rather than the happy ending she concocted for them, and herself. It brings a whole new meaning to the structure of the book.


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