“Atonement” – An Exquisitely Crafted Novel
We often reiterate the events or incidents in our life, in the form of stories. We tell those stories to ourselves either to plead or to promote. We try to enclose some kind of rational thought, for every mistake we make. So, writing, in a way, is a kind of futile effort to make amends for our faults. The task of writing always has its reservations, since the past is distorted, rationalized and ultimately tries to atone. In the novel, “Atonement”, the Booker-prize winning novelist Ian McEwan (“Amsterdam”) makes us contemplate the power of a story-teller, through a defective central character, Briony.
McEwan’s “Atonement” is set in the brink of World War II. The novel is divided into four parts. The first and longest part captures the disintegration of a rich English family. The story begins in 1935, in an English manor. Inner characters of three lives clashes at a point: Robbie Turner, son of the family’s house worker; Cecilia Tallis, an upper class 18 year old girl and her sullen 13 year old sister, Briony Tallis. There’s a theme of fiction within fiction in this part. Briony is intent in putting on a play titled “The Trials of Arrabella”, on the eve of Leon’s (brother) arrival.
The family patriarch, Jack Tallis is mostly absent during that summer. The bed-ridden mother, Emily Tallis has migraines, but still tries hard to run things. Cecilia loves Robbie. Though their relationship seems strained, repressed passion is lying under the surface. Leon Tallis returns with a friend Paul Marshall – a man hell-bent on seeking profit by selling his Amo chocolate bars to Army. Briony’s play runs afoul, when their cousins Lola, Jackson and Pierrot play the lines with half-heartedness. The house doesn’t heed to the talents of Briony. All the frustrations and anger reach a boiling point, when Robbie hands over a letter to Cecilia trough Briony.
Briony’s precociousness and imagination makes her misinterpret an erotic encounter between Cecilia and Robbie, and later when she witnesses the sexual assault on her cousin, Lola, Briony falsely blames Robbie. Her active envisions shatters the dreams and lives of many. At 18, Briony understands her folly and regrets for her crime. The story further continues in the battle ground of France, in the military hospitals of London and finally returns to the manor, in 1999. Will Briony confront Cecilia and Robbie? And what’s the fate of the lovers? It’s unfair to reveal the central characters’ fates, but I can say that there are great amount of unexpected twists and every line of dialogue and intricate details takes on grand meaning by the end.
Ian McEwan intentionally moves the story at a slow pace. The groundwork of every character’s behavior is laid out in detail and the narrative puts us in the perspectives of Robbie, Briony and Cecilia. Tedium might set in, if you are reading the novel in multiple sitting. However, you might appreciate McEwan’s use of language. It is also the kind of novel, where we might discover new themes in recurrent readings. The final pages of this novel are a delight to read, considering the imagination that has gone into it.
McEwan offers up a perfect portrait of a cute and not so innocent child. Kids always think that they are the ones experiencing everything anew. In “Atonement”, Briony stands in between the boundaries of reality and fantasy, life and fiction. Her understanding of love is puritanical. It resembles the lyrics of a love poem. So, what Briony witnesses in the library is a huge shock to her. The author also remains androgynous and versatile in narrating this multi-layered story: he plunges into the mind of child as well as a teenage girl; chips in with the harrowing depiction of military life; upper class’ social idiosyncrasies and shows ravages of time against human nature.
“Atonement” was made into a movie in 2007. It was directed by Joe Wright and Sairose Ronan took the role of Briony. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy played Cecilia and Robbie. The movie was stripped of McEwan subtleties, but gives the proceedings, a sense of urgency. The cinematography is breathtaking, especially the carefully choreographed World War II setting. The movie and the book are impressive and excellent is their own merits. They both provide a satisfying experience. However, I would prefer reading the book first before watching the movie.
McEwan’s “Atonement” is a highly ambitious and stylized read. It transcends the limitations of a novel and is one of the best contemporary novels you must read.