Author: Ian McEwan
Winner: L.A. Times Book Prize, Fiction, 2001; National Book Critics Circle Award, Fiction, 2002; W.H. Smith Literary Award, 2002; Boeke Prize, 2002; Santiago Prize for the European Novel, 2004
Original Publication: 2001
#42 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
Briony Tallis is a precocious 13-year old girl from a wealthy-ish English family who aspires to be a writer. The book is told from her point of view and begins just before the ‘incident’ (for which she atones), and continues into her old age. The story begins with Briony writing a play, starring herself and her cousins, to be performed for the family as her older brother and sister are returning from college that evening. Present also are a family friend, Robbie, and his less than savory friend Paul. Briony is, like many young and imaginative teens, a little selfish and very much wrapped up in her own world. She is in the phase between childhood and adulthood where she understands little of the adult world, but imagines it vividly and knows just enough to be dangerous.
Briony witnesses from her window an incident between her older sister Cecelia and Robbie that leaves her confused. As Cecelia and Robbie stand by the fountain, they seem to quarrel and Cecelia drops a vase, breaking it and sending shards into the fountain. She strips to her underwear and climbs into the fountain to retrieve them. This leads to Robbie writing Cecelia a letter of apology for the way he behaved and a confession of his love for Cecelia. He writes one version of the letter for Cecelia, and another version for himself to keep, where he confesses sexual feelings and uses the word cunt. Briony is tasked with delivering the letter to Cecelia, but accidentally takes the dirty letter instead and reads it herself on the way. She tells her cousin Lola (who is around her age) about the letter and they become convinced that Robbie is a sex maniac and that they must protect Cecelia from him. Meanwhile, Cecelia has received the letter in a much more charitable spirit and realizes that she is in love with Robbie, and they make love in the library. Briony walks in on them and wrongly interprets it as sexual assault.
After dinner, Briony’s younger twin cousins disappear into the estate grounds, and the family and guests split up to look for them. Briony finds a man raping her cousin Lola in the bushes during the course of the search and, in her confusion, fingers Robbie for the crime. Lola, hurt and afraid, allows Briony to do all of the talking. Based on Briony’s eyewitness statement, Robbie is arrested and goes to prison, and Cecelia is furious. The next two thirds of the novel are aftermath and “what happens next”, but I won’t go too far into that. The end contains some interesting twists that are worth not knowing beforehand if you haven’t read it and intend to.
Despite its brilliant reviews, I am pretty on the fence as to whether I liked this book or didn’t. The language is very flowery – so much so that you can skim entire pages and not miss anything. It was very easy for me to put down, but I was compelled to finish it. The biggest problem that I had with it is that the story seems too improbable. I understand that 1935 was a different era, but I can’t imagine the police taking the word of a thirteen-year old child over the victim herself (who was unsure), and without investigating any further. I suppose that Briony being to blame for Robbie’s imprisonment is necessary to the story’s setup, but to me, it didn’t seem very realistic. I suppose that one of the reasons the family might have been so willing to believe that it was Robbie is that socially, he’s a step below them despite being a family friend. He is the son of one of their servants and has grown up practically in the house. It is rather a common theme in stories that servants are automatically suspect every time something goes awry.
Fun fact: The novel was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2007 starring Kiera Knightley as Cecelia, James McAvoy as Robbie, and Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones; pronounced SUR-sha) as Briony.
Bother if: As for myself, Atonement is probably not a novel I would re-read, or go out of my way to recommend. It reminded me of a play – not necessarily a bad thing. I believe it would translate well to the theatre. It seems I am in the minority in my opinion about the brilliance of this book, but I was very lukewarm on it. That said, much of the imagery is stunning, and it is a good, well-written story. As Briony is an aspiring writer and Atonement is told from her point of view; the book also touches on the nature of writing and crafting stories, which was also interesting.
Don’t Bother if: You dislike overly descriptive writing. While the writing itself is very good if you like that sort of thing, there are entire (lengthy) passages where the writing isn’t serving to move the story along. Also contains themes of rape and war.