There’s nothing like backing up a viewing of Les Mis by finishing Ian McEwan’s lovely, albeit depressing, novel, Atonement. Anyone care for a tissue?
Atonement is set in three parts, over a period of years. Watch out, a few spoilers are going to come out!
Beginning on a hot English Summer’s day, little sister, Briony, an imaginative and aspiring writer of 13, sees her older sister Cecilia and childhood friend, Robbie, together doing something…a little peculiar. However, since this is set both in England and in 1935, what is considered scandalous would be considered the norm in our 21st society.
Later on, Briony once again witnesses another act between the two, and she believes that she needs to protect Cecilia from Robbie. This belief is further enhanced in the darkness of the night when a cousin is sexually assaulted…and willing Robbie to be evil, she believes the retreating, guilty, figure to be him.
As a result, he gets locked away.
Five years on, Robbie, desperate to escape the suffocating cell he is confined to, joins the army and helps fight in France during the Second World War. He is still desperately in love with Cecilia, and she too, who has always believed his innocence. She herself is working as a nurse, and has ceased all contact with her family, ashamed and angry that they were so willing to convict him. In a letter, she alludes that Briony wants to takes back her statement, in order to prove Robbie’s innocence.
Briony is 18, and despite still wanting to be a famous writer, she is working as a student nurse in a hospital as penance for what she has done. During this time we are shown the stark realities of war, when she tends the victims. She receives a letter from her father that Paul Marshall and her once-assaulted cousin, Lola, are to be married after all these years. The news propels her into action, and she goes to meet spontaneously with Cecilia, who has been reunited once again with Robbie. Although she will not be able to prove his innocence, and neither will forgive her, Briony is still determined to set the truth straight.
Many years later, when Briony is old and dying, we learn that ‘Atonement’ is actually written by her. We also learn that some of the key facts, the ones we wish most to believe, may actually be untrue.
While this novel did have its flaws, I found it to be absorbing and interesting. In particular, I loved the first section of the novel, with McEwan’s rich descriptions of the English summer, the blossoming love between Robbie and Cecilia and the tension within the family. However, I also found that this faded during the second and third parts, and while they were still descriptive, I was less interested in war scenes as I was in the character’s relationships.
Another aspect of the novel that I liked was the steady build-up to the inevitable; we know something awful is going to happen, yet we will the characters to change the future, to stop the course of time. This is further enhanced by the different character perspectives, so we learn about Robbie’s, Cecilia’s, Emily’s and Briony’s thoughts as the events unfold.
While I loved the romance between Robbie and Cecilia, I felt it was somewhat neglected by McEwan, especially since it is a story primarily about love. I get that yes, it was a novel about Briony dealing with her guilt and her past actions as a child, but damnit, I wanted to know more about Robbie and Cecilia. Their romance had such promise in the first third of the novel; from the descriptions of their emotions, to their only love scene, to reflections on their past. As characters I enjoyed their pairing, and I wanted so badly for them to be together, but it almost fell by the wayside as the story unfolded.
Briony as the narrator was definitely interesting; I both liked and loathed her. She continually infuriated me with her ability to jump to conclusions, to fantasy plot lines in reality and to complain about what her life had become. But I also felt so sorry for her, when she realised what her actions had caused, and the irrevocable damage she had done to Robbie’s and Cecilia’s lives. Surely this is a testament to McEwan’s writing abilities, because usually if I don’t like a protagonist or narrative then, bam, I’m gone for the rest of the book.
Lastly, while this is definitely a sad book, and I’ve heard the film is even worse (James McAvoy dies. Can you even imagine?), I still didn’t feel too much for the characters by the time their fate had played out. Perhaps because Briony had given me an ‘alternate ending’ in which to believe, or perhaps because, in either ending, both ‘real’ and ‘fake’, in life and death, Robbie and Cecilia are together, I felt they ended up happy, wherever they were.
Have you read Atonement or seen the novel? What do you think of the characters? Are you a fan of Ian McEwan? Let me know!