Reading & Reviewing | R&R 026
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R&R 026 | Atonement

Ian McEwan
Anchor books 2007, 351 pages
First published in 2001
Cover by Focus Features llc
Flickr post

The year is 1935, the place is rural England. For the Tallis family, the years preceding the war that would rip Europe apart once more, is the time their family experiences a division of their own.

In the first of four parts of the book, thirteen year-old Briony Tallis, aspiring writer with an overactive imagination, witnesses the slightest hint of affection between the gardener’s son Robbie and her sister Cecilia. Entirely naive and too young to understand a remote bit of adult relationships and behaviours, Briony is certain that Robbie is a dangerous man who will bring harm to her sister. He must be stopped. And so her misinterpretation of that one delicate flirtation sets into motion a chain of further misunderstandings (and meddling) on her part, climaxing into the perception of a crime. A butterfly effect, where lives are ruined.

The remaining three parts of the novel cover the consequences. Several years have passed; World War 2 has started and England is in battle. Robbie serves the army in Dunkirk, Cecilia (now a nurse) is no longer on speaking terms with any of her family… and Briony has grown from that thirteen year-old girl into a young woman, finally beginning to grasp adulthood.

Starting slowly and requiring patience, Atonement after a while proves itself to be a well-balanced, powerful book comprising of the right amount of plotting, character development, suspense, descriptions of place and time, and dialogue. It also covers various themes that are all equally intense, such as growing up, desire, loss, regret and the war. McEwan juggles the varied techniques and themes very well, effortlessly switching from one character perspective to the other, from one place (in time) to the next.

Rightly shortlisted for the Booker prize (2001), McEwan has written a substantial, passionate novel using a suitable level of meta-fiction, as he explores the dangers (and perhaps, the comforts) of imagination via his character Briony.

What impressed me most was the complex psychology McEwan applied to character development, but also to his readers; Briony’s appaling behaviour was frustrating and the consequences upsetting, but the reader is asked to stop and consider that she was only a child at the time. McEwan insists: Briony is the one atoning, not only to herself and the ones she’s hurt… but to us as well. McEwan is persuasive and has earned my respect.


R&R series (reviews and photos) © Karin Elizabeth.

Karin Elizabeth
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