Monday, June 28, 2010


Ian McEwan's 2001 Atonement is probably his most widely read and critically acclaimed novel. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has been adapted into an Academy-Award nominated film, and is beloved by readers all over. I absolutely loved about 95% of the book, but in the very end I was left a little disappointed, especially after the near-perfect The Child In Time, the only other McEwan I've read to date.

We are introduced to the Tallis family in the summer of 1935, when 13-year-old Briony is excited to see her older sister Cecilia and brother Leon, home from college, and her cousins Lola, Jackson and Pierrot, who are visiting while Aunt Hermione has a tryst in Paris. As the weekend begins, she witnesses a flirtation between Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis' charwoman who has grown up with the Tallis children and is also home from college. Robbie is head over heels in love with Cecilia, and determines to tell her that evening. When he does so, and Cecilia reciprocates, their moment of shared passion is misunderstood by young Briony. Later in the evening Lola is assaulted; Briony mistakenly accuses Robbie, ultimately sending him to jail.

The next part of the book overlays the brutal detail of Robbie's experience fighting in WWII with his and Cecilia's love story. It is beautiful and powerful and the contrast is wonderfully executed. From there, we learn of Briony's experiences, eschewing school and her family and entering into the nursing profession as her personal attempt to atone for her crime against Robbie and her sister.

The book is so well crafted, so well written, and the story so wonderfully conceived right until that point, I had every intention of raving about it and reporting that the attention lavished upon it is well deserved. Unfortunately, the last section bothered me. In the last few pages, we learn that the entire book was a novel penned by Briony, that it was the umpteenth re-write, and that the events may or may not have happened as written. It felt gimmicky to me. Casting it as a novel within a novel, but only sharing that information at the very end; telling the reader that some - but not all - of the preceding events were accurate, while others were Briony's embellishments or inventions... I didn't think McEwan needed the trick to make the reader feel the desperation or futility of Briony's quest for atonement. Almost all of the book was truly lovely, and I will read more by this author, but I didn't love Atonement the way many people do.

Up next: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the next book up for the Fearless Readers. I'm also reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami.

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