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…