I finished reading Atonement by In McEwen several weeks ago, but until now, I have been struggling to write a review of the book or to describe my reactions to it. It is a gripping read, but my reactions swung between amazement at it’s literary excellence and doubts as to the book’s value even as a fire starter. McEwen is a master of the short story- he could be perhaps best described as the poet of prose- but the description of Dunkirk is so clichéd that it could have been copied from any History student’s essay. It is one of McEwen’s longest novels, but he applies the same level of detail in this novel that he does in any of his longer works.
The plot, briefly, is as follows. [Part I] One Summer day in 1935, at the their county home, in a family of self made wealth, Briony Tallis is a thirteen year old aspiring writer and playwright. On this day, everyone is due to return to the family’s stately home- her older brother and sister, their cousins, and two friend’s Paul Marshal and Robbie Turner. Through a series of misunderstandings, the innocent Briony stumbles across her sister having sex with Robbie. Briony wrongly interprets the scene as Robbie assaulting her sister. By night the party is underway, but Lola, one of the cousins, discovers that the two younger cousins, the twins, have decided to run away. Everyone brakes up into search parties to look for them. Briony goes off on her own. She doesn’t find the twins, but she does witness someone rape Lola, although it is too dark to see who. From her misunderstandings of the earlier events, she assumes that the rapist must be Robbie. Cut back to the house- the police are called and Robbie is arrested and later sentenced. [Part II] It’s 1941, and the Allies are retreating from France. Robbie Turner has joined the army in hope of a sooner release. In a few graphic pages, he joins the many walking back to the beaches of Dunkirk. It is a moving character portrait, however clichéd or similar to McEwen’s earlier works. [Part III] Briony was lying- the rapist was Paul Marshal- and at eighteen, she realises her fault. Desperate to atone for what her crime, she forgoes a place at Cambridge to become a war nurse. She meets her sister who has now moved in with the discharged Robbie. Neither of them want anything to do with her now. [Part IV] Briony has gone on to form a prestigious career as a novelist. But by 1999, she is suffering from Dementia. She decides to write this novel, her last, as a final atonement for what she had done. There is a grand dénouement, but I’m not going to spoil that.
For me, the most interesting theme of the novel is writing. Briony is an aspiring author, and her sister and Robbie both studied literature at Cambridge. As a distinguished writer, McEwen certainly knows something about it. The first part of the novel is an exploration of varying points of view. McEwen also shows how writers are inspired, and how they take their ideas and observations and write them into fiction. McEwen describes the process that Robbie goes through in writing a letter of only a few sentences. In must be something he is well acquainted with. In the more recent film, the soundtrack was produced with a typewriter to reinforce this theme of writing.
But it is not simply a exposition of one theme. McEwen challenges the classism and justice system of the interwar years. Robbie was a scholarship boy at the local grammar school, where as Briony family are millionaires. Although there is no evidence, Briony’s testament is taken undoubted because of her higher class status and the assumption that a thirteen year old girl couldn’t be lying. This theme is more subtly explored, and you have to read carefully to pick up on many references. Although McEwen also touches on other themes, but these two are by far the main themes.
I found it a gripping read. McEwen’s style is very readable, and he uses otherwise common techniques, like imagery, sparingly. One thing that interested me is McEwen’s use of the child protagonist, particularly his portrayal of childhood. He is a master of detail, which he used without resorting to unusual vocabulary. Yet Atonement is replete with cultural and historic referenced. It is a highly recommended novel that could become a classic. No, it is not worthy of being placed next to Shakespeare, but there’s a gap between Hard Times and A Room of One’s Own on my bookshelf that it will not precociously fill.
Atonement is published by Vintage.