REVIEWER: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle
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 forever. 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.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, Atonement is regarded as Ian McEwan’s “masterpiece”, and it isn’t hard to see why it is lauded so.
The novel starts slowly; the first eight or nine chapters serve to set the scene, a mundane commentary on everyday life:
There was really no point trying to arrange wild flowers. They had tumbled into their own symmetry, and it was certainly true that too even a distribution between the irises and the rose-bay willow-herb ruined the effect.
However, McEwan writes a narrative that is simple and elegant, full of fire, excitement and suspense. His prose is beautiful and evocative in its subtle simplicity; as the story unfolds, we are drawn quickly into the narrative, and fall heavily for the characters, which have been captured skillfully without excess explanation.
We watch as our protagonist, Briony, matures through each part of the novel. We watch as she loses her childish innocence while struggling to atone for her mistakes. We are with Robbie in the sobering, stark realities of war:
There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go.
and we learn more about Cecilia and her strength through the letters she exchanges with him:
They turned on you, all of them, even my father. When they wrecked your life they wrecked mine. They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl. In fact, they encouraged her by giving her no room to turn back.
There is, of course, a plot twist. A twist that makes the reader smile and at the same time, scratch their head and turn back a few pages to hunt for clues. This is a novel about love, guilt and the desire to atone for one’s mistakes, and the inequalities (and impact) of social class.
Atonement is a clever and wonderfully-written novel; if you haven’t yet read anything by McEwan, this is guaranteed to leave you wanting more.