Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan

AtonementAtonement by Ian McEwan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ian McEwan, British author

Ian McEwan, British author (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan is by far the best book I’ve read this year (2013). There is a fluid ease to the language and to the events that unfold in the first half of the book that it is so unlike any book I have ever encountered. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a few of his books might come close.

In the first 175 pages of the book, McEwan transports the reader into the remarkable events of one single summer’s day in 1935 that might otherwise be ordinary but by section’s end turn horrifically and extraordinarily into a life-shaping event, as if Shakespeare’s pen graced the edges of the story.

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Here are what three reviewers said about Atonement, and I certainly agree with their assessments.

”Resplendent…Graceful…Magisterial…Gloriously realized.” – The Boston Globe

”A work of astonishing depth and humanity…It is rare for a critic to feel justified in using the word ‘masterpiece,’ but [Atonement] really deserves to be called one.” – The Economist

”In the seriousness of its intentions and the dazzle of its language, Atonement made me starry-eyed all over again on behalf of literature’s humanizing possibilities.” – Daphne Merkin, Los Angeles Times

Sadly, there aren’t enough books being published in today’s market like this one.

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As for Atonement, let’s take a look into Part I of the 351-page novel.

Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner are the three primary characters that McEwan closely follows through the events of the day, from morning to the next morning. Briony, a snobbish girl of thirteen, is shocked to discover the adult world in its sexual explicitness when she witnesses Robbie, a hired hand, and her sister, Cee, by the fountain and later that evening in the library.

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Briony is conflicted as she begins to see a larger, less childish world than her own past.

”If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance” (p 34).

And a little later, Briony admits to herself, in a clear movement of foreshadowing her future mistake and regret:

”Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other, and how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong” (p 37).

{To be honest, I know a few people just like Briony who seem to get ”everything wrong, completely wrong”. But let’s leave these ‘judgers’ be. These people have their own walls and demons to overcome.}

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Briony sees her older sister strip and dive into the fountain for some unexplained reason. Briony believes she has just seen Robbie force Cee to shamefully reveal her body. In the library, Briony walks in on Robbie and Cee who are engaged in the throes of passion and sexual bliss. Again, Briony believes Robbie is a lunatic, a sexual deviant that seeks to debase her sister. Here is the beginning to that scene through Briony’s eyes:

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”At first, when she pushed open the door and stepped in, she saw nothing at all. The only light was from a single green-glass desk lamp which illuminated little more than the tooled leather surface on which it stood. When she took another few steps she saw them, dark shapes in the furthest corner. Though they were immobile, her immediate understanding was that she had interrupted an attack, a hand-to-hand fight. The scene was so entirely a realization of her worst fears that she sensed that her overanxious imagination had projected the figures onto the packed spines of books. This illusion, or hope of one, was dispelled as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. No one moved. Briony stared past Robbie’s shoulder into the terrified eyes of her sister” (p 116).

What is wonderful with this kind of story is that McEwan provides the backdrop to Robbie and Cee’s encounters and the reader is able to witness the grand design unfolding between the lovers who, after years of stepping around the truth to their feelings, are finally united. And McEwan is able to re-envision those three words that have long been written and spoken by people for ages and will for ages to come: I love you. Here is what McEwan writes:

”Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she had been the one to say them first” (p 129).

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True amour, no? I’ve always loved a good love story, and for many pages one thinks this will unfold into a fine epic. But McEwan and Briony have other plans for these lovers.

There is the misperceptions of Briony that looms large over this small cast of characters.

McEwan is also a visionary in his methods to reveal detail and thoughts. Take these following passages:

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”[Cecilia’s] breathing slowed and her desire for a cigarette deepened, but still she hesitated by the door, momentarily held by the perfection of the scene–by the three faded Chesterfields grouped around the almost new Gothic fireplace in which stood a display of wintry sedge, by the unplayed, untuned harpsichord and the unused rosewood music stands, by the heavy velvet curtains, loosely restrained by an orange and blue tasseled rope, framing a partial view of cloudless sky and the yellow and gray mottled terrace where chamomile and and feverfew grew between the paving cracks” (p 19).

chesterfield                                  harpsichord                                       feverfew

And here is Robbie, and a bit of his foreshadowing doom that awaits him later that night:

”What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men toward ill health! Birth, death, and frailty in between…he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind…” (p 87).

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That night, Robbie is arrested for raping Lola, Briony’s fifteen-year-old cousin. Briony is the chief witness and despite only seeing a shadow of a man she accuses Robbie. And one can still hear Robbie’s mother, Grace Turner, yelling as the police car drives off, ”Liars! Liars! Liars!” (p 174-175).

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That ends Part I, and I recommend that you pick up the book and read Parts II and III to find out what happens. There is also a recent film by the same name but I recommend the book over the film. Atonement, the novel, is an achievement in literature and an outstanding story. A strong recommend.

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27 responses to “Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan

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