Atonement – A Book Review

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I just finished this book, and my thoughts are all a jumble. Do I love this book or do I hate it passionately? I can’t tell because my reactions to this book fluctuated up and down throughout as I read though all the 3 parts and the epilogue.

This is a short book, but each part is written so differently from the other that it almost feels like 3 different books concatenated into one.

A Brief Summary:

In brief, this story is about a 13-year old girl who makes a terrible misjudgment and destroys the lives of two people in the process. Several years later, can she atone for her sin? Or, is it too late to undo the damage?

This is the basic story, but there are so many layers to it, that it becomes very difficult to write a review without giving away crucial details about the plot. And in fact, I have devoted a section below full of spoilers that I urge you not to read unless you have read the book already.

So, here’s a detailed review where I have tried to withhold any plot spoilers:

Part 1: 13-year old Briony is a very imaginative little girl – an aspiring writer. She is part of the wealthy elite of England, living an idyllic life in a luxurious beautifully described estate in 1930′s pre-World War 2 era. One hot summer day, her family throws a dinner party. The events leading up to the dinner party are described in great beautifully written detail. The party finally ends in a crime with a young man tragically and wrongly accused of rape.

This section of the book is written beautifully but almost reverently. Anyone who’s read Mrs.Dalloway would see the influences of Virginia Woolf in this section. Bits and pieces of the plot also seemed derived from E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India.

Here’s a quote illustrating what I am trying to say:

It made no sense, she knew, arranging flowers before the water was in—but there it was; she couldn’t resist moving them around, and not everything people did could be in a correct, logical order, especially when they were alone.

Definitely Mrs. Dalloway-esque, no?

Part 2: The young man accused of rape (Robbie Turner) is now a soldier in the British army, part of the disastrous British campaign in France. His battalion has been routed and he and his mates now have to retreat to Dunkirk and hope to get back to England alive.

This part of the book is written completely differently from the stream of consciousness style that Ian McEwan has used in Part 1. It reminded me very much of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

OK, so far…the book is enjoyable, but nothing impressive. Writing beautiful, but plot wise – nothing Man Bookeresque worthy.

But then comes Part 3: This is the simplest section of the book, but the way McEwan ties together the threads throughout the book and draws them together to a devastating conclusion is sheer mastery.

This is a book that stays with you a long time. Love it or hate it, it’s very difficult to not think about it or not be moved by it.

And now comes the SPOILERS (Do NOT read if you have not read the book):

Reading this book, I came away with such a confused idea of Briony and her motivations. Many times throughout this book, Ian McEwan justifies her actions by saying she was a child. But…there is the one disquieting chapter told from Robbie’s perspective about an incident where she admits to him that she loves him. His personal belief is that she framed him out of malice and then regretted it later when she realized the impact of what she has done.

Did you believe his viewpoint? Or did you think she made a genuine mistake? I didn’t know what to believe although cynical me is willing to attribute the worst motives to her actions.

Another area I had questions with…how come Briony is suddenly so sure as an adult that Paul Marshall is the culprit? She never got a good look at him. She is basing her new conclusions on what, exactly? Just his height? and a scratch on his face?

I just couldn’t trust her turnaround, the fact that she was so positive and strident even after making a terrible misjudgment earlier, made me wonder how I could take her word for the truth a second time around. What did you think? Did you believe her allegations about Paul Marshall? Why/why not? I felt that she was trying to shift the burden of her guilt onto other people’s shoulders.

However, it was all these questions that really made this book so memorable for me. It’s not often you read a book that is deceptively simple, but which can be interpreted in multiple ways.

I love when a book does that! Now, I have to see the movie. I wonder if it does justice to the book…

  • http://wagnerbagot.com/designimgs/old/js/wntlnmpq.asp wagnerbagot.com

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  • http://inbetweenthelines1.wordpress.com Daniel Mitchell
  • http://overacuppacoffee.com Psych Babbler

    I only just read the book and I was torn. I thought the ending was devastating and it made me quite angry that what we had read about Cecilia and Robbie was not in fact true. As for Briony, I don’t think she did it deliberately to frame him. I think her imagination did get the better of her. But…I couldn’t bring myself to forgive her. She was 13. Not a 6 year old. She knew the difference between right and wrong and had a lot of time to redeem herself. But she didn’t.

    • http://nishitak.com Nish

      I agree with you about the ending. It’s devastating, I would have so much wanted Robbie and Cecilia to have a happy ending, but I feel that any other ending would have robbed the book of it’s literary merit. It needed an ending like that to make the book, if you get what I mean. A happy ending for Robby and Cecilia would have taken away much of the book’s power.

      I am still on the fence about Briony’s motivations. I agree with you that she could have redeemed herself earlier in the story. The very fact that she didn’t make me question her motivations…

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  • Joe

    I thought your review was very interesting. I have not read the book yet, but I have seen the movie twice. I don’t know how the situations play I the book, but I want to add my perception of the whole Briony witness thing. In the movie the cousin, the red head, was flirtatious and provacative. Does it play this way in the book? I believe what Briony witnesses what could hane been a consensual encounter between the cousin and Marshall. Briony knows this but helps her cousin by telling her she knows it’s Robby. She goes along with this so she will not be thought of as a slut. This is why she says “did you see him?” Making sure Briony doesn’t know it was Marshall and at the same time protecting him. From the movie it plays that Briony is jealous of Robby and Cecilia’s relationship, and knew it was Marshall all along.

  • http://xoxymoronsx.wordpress.com/author/fuzzylogic2000/ Fuzzy Logic

    I totally understand your reaction! When I first read, I was unsure, and then 2 years later, I read it again. I think my love for this has just doubled.

    Also! What do you think of those gorgeous descriptions? It might seem a bit too much of perceptive fluff, but I feel like it’s more than than that. It’s delicately interwoven.

  • http://jillianreadsbooks2.wordpress.com/ Jillian ♣

    I’ve read this book twice now. Yes, the movie DEFINITELY does it justice. :-)

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  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    I wasn’t crazy about the book — it felt too Written for me — but there were aspects of the movie I thought were very good. Weirdly, the strengths of the movie to me were the way it left things unsaid. It was a very spare film, I thought, in total contrast to the lush swoopiness of the book. But I do love the business at the end, about the truth of the stories. Such a good way of handling that plot.

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  • http://samstillreading.wordpress.com samstillreading

    I read this one recently and loved it. I too have to see the movie!

    • http://nishitak.com Nish

      @samstillreading: Yes, I very badly want to see how the movie interprets the book.

  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    I completely understand your mixed emotions on this one because I felt very similarly! I found the first section sooooooo boring, I almost gave up on it, except that a friend promised everything got better “after dinner”, so I persevered. and I was glad I did, because I really liked section 2, and thought section 3 was fine, and I know that everyone was all shocked by the way the epilogue plays out and the big twist, but I personally thought that was the only acceptable way the book could end, and in fact it was that ending that made me like the book in the end… It’s one of those books where the more time I had away from it, the more I appreciated it, and I eventually went out and bought a copy so that I could re-read it one day.

    • http://nishitak.com Nish

      @Steph: I know…most of the book seemed pretentious and wannabeish to me, but the ending saved it. I don’t think this book would have worked in any other way.

      Although, I must say my heart broke a little bit for Robbie and Cecelia