What secrets do you have from long ago?

October 5, 2002

Ian McEwan, Atonement, London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.

Reviewed by Nina Waters 

medium_64883734Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998. Atonement was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001. I have been a McEwan fan for a long time and this is the best of his prolific output yet. Starting very slowly, it becomes more gripping as the plot and characters develop and intertwine – quite irresistible! Atonement is an engaging novel with a message about how we all attempt to edit our own versions of history.

The title Atonement hints at a dark secret, a need for retribution, something we can all be curious about with our own hidden secrets. McEwan’s story of the intricate relationships within an English family staying at an estate begins in the 1930’s, progresses through wartime, and then concludes, with a twist at the end, in the present day. The complexity of youth, along with the vagaries of maturity, the awakening of sexual awareness, and the agony of desire and guilt, all contribute to an intriguing and hypnotic plot.

McEwan’s use of female characters as the main protagonists is well executed. We meet Briony Tallis, the fiction writer, the storyteller, and the dramatic director, in the process of writing a fantasy play with all of its associated drama. Despite its melodrama, Briony’s fairy tale, The Trials of Arabella, becomes a symbol of her obsessive search for perfection. When Briony inadvertently witnesses something disturbing and interprets it in her own impressionistic manner, life will never be the same for the characters drawn together at the estate.

The second part of the novel is quite a contrast to the first. The descriptions of battle and its aftermath are well written and graphic. The emotional trauma of the war and the wounded is developed in a manner that allows us to feel the anguish and despair of those fighting for their country. The futility of war and the assault on all physical and emotional fronts is portrayed in an overpowering fashion.

As an adult in Part Three, the life experiences of Briony during the time of war enable her to address her earlier actions and their terrible outcomes. The last part of the novel is dramatic. It details the agony of Briony’s past and her desperation for retribution. Can atonement ever really take place? Once the damage and hurt has been done, is there anything that can ever really take it all away?

………how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her.

Photo credit: by Brian Drew, Flicker Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

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