Review: Atonement

Posted 13 June, 2008 by Li in Books / 1 Comment

I’ve been meaning to do this entry for a very long time now but I wanted everything out of the way in order to do it because I’ve had a lot of thought about it and there’s just so much to say about the book. I’ve just finished re-reading the book so a lot of what I have to say about this novel is also relatively fresh in my mind. I originally thought I could merge the book and movie reviews here but it appears that my book review/analysis/discussion is on the long side so it’ll be split. So, this should be fun, lol. Massive spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the book!

By: Ian McEwan

What can be said about Atonement? Well, just a brief rundown on the premise: the book spans from three different time periods starting from 1935. On one hot summer day, the lives of three different individuals will drastically change thanks to (ultimately) the power of perspective and the action of one child. That last sentence sounds very vague, but the plot is a fairly complicated once you start getting your head wrapped around it but essentially the course of the book fundamentally follows the course of their lives as a result of one action, one lie, and the struggle to deal with the reprecussions of that event.

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Ian McEwan and I have to say, I was very impressed. What drew me in to the book right away was his prose; I know some people find his prose very boring, but I found it to be quite refreshing. The first time around, I was just drawn in by the way he described the events, the thoughts and actions of these characters, the words he used to describe these aspects of the story. The way he phrased things and the way his sentences were structured came to be as very different, as though it was written by someone in the early 20th century, maybe even earlier, like it was written in a way that you don’t see books written now. Reading it a second time around, I appreciated how he always seemed to find the right word to describe a particular event or a particular scene. It worked for the novel, and I think it really added to the story.

Part One, set in 1935, takes up half the novel and thus is integral to the entire story because it both gives you a backdrop to the actual “crime” (to use McEwan’s phrase) and the events surrounding the said-crime. This part is particularly my favourite because he really does a spectacular job in really getting into the shoes of each of his characters, getting into their thoughts and portraying their hopes and dreams, their thoughts and concerns and their attitudes to their surroundings. Whether it be Cecilia’s uncertain future or Robbie’s certainty, Briony’s reflections and growing changes towards the art of writing to Emily Tallis’s midlife crisis (for lack of a better description), you really do get a sense of their thoughts and essentially where they are as individuals and where they could possibly going. Cecilia and Robbie’s chapters are particularly my favourite, possibly because they are the closest to my age and I can relate to their internal dialogues and concerns. The flow of this section is just wonderful, you really get an atmosphere fromr reading this selection, as if you really are in 1935 and it is that hot and sunny day and you’re just listless like you can’t believe; you can almost smell the cigarettes that they’re smoking (which, if you’re like me and can’t stand it, can be quite startling). If McEwan’s prose doesn’t tell you of his greatness, than surely this portion of the novel does.

From the get-go, the book’s devastating. Devastating is a word I commonly use with this book because it is. And if you’ve read the entire book, you’ll understand why too. McEwan lays out each and every one of the characters and where they are essentially coming from in terms of life experience. The minute you start reading the different perspectives between Robbie & Cecilia’s encounter at the fountain, you begin to get a sense that this novel is about misunderstandings and difference of perspective as well as “the crime”. Briony essentially jumps to conclusion with what she saw at the fountain that day; Robbie & Cecilia obviously were there so they knew what the whole thing was about. By the time you get to the part where Briony rips open the letter, you feel for Robbie & Cecilia’s perspective and what will come afterwards; what always gets me is why did Briony rip open the letter? She was curious, sure, but that was downright snoopy.

What happens afterward, when Briony tells the lie is therefore the result of two causes: one is Robbie’s mistake of taking the earlier, “more anatomical” message rather than his handwritten one and two, Briony opening the message that was entrusted by Robbie to give to Cecilia. The fountain incident could have been brushed off as another one of her fanciful moments of the imagination in coming days if it wasn’t for her opening the message and thus fueling that thought further. You’ll see Robbie regretting his oversight in the second part of the book, but I don’t recall reading Briony ever regret opening the letter that day. Again, when “the crime” is committed, it’s another moment of jumping to conclusions; Lola is assaulted by an individual and Briony keeps pressing Lola to find out who that person is until finally, she provides the individual: Robbie, based on previous events that occurred. Again, she acted on her assumptions; she never dared maybe getting their point of view (sure, she’s thirteen and her upbringing might have something to do with it), but the point is that she acted on what she saw without ever considering that what she saw might’ve been something completely different.

But now let me say a few words about Cecilia and Robbie because their love story is also rather crucial to the story despite what others may say (not that I’m saying that Briony’s isn’t important because her story is obviously central to the book). In essence, they are the first and foremost in the injured party list (Mrs. Turner, Briony & the Tallises being next on that list); Briony’s lie tore them apart, right at the beginning of their romantic relationship, just when they got together. What gets me is that Robbie was a fairly optimistic man at the beginning of the novel; I say fairly because it was mentioned that he bounded from occupation possibility to occupation possibility until finally deciding on going to medical school. But his future was bright, he was looking ahead. What happened between him and Cecilia in the library further added to the optimism, of them exploring this relationship and essentially being a part of that future. Cecilia, on the other hand, started off on a fairly different course; she graduated having no idea what to do next, torn between staying at home and moving away and really starting her life. She’s had this nagging feeling that’s weighed her down those past weeks since returning from Cambridge and she’s clearly in need of some direction in her life. The moment in the library I think gave her that direction, gave her that purpose (again, as we see in Part Two). Briony’s lie essentially shattered Robbie’s optimism and robbed their chance of being together at the same time, which proves devastating in the subsequent chapters.

On a side note, during my second read of the book, I finally fully realized how close Cecilia and her brother Leon were. I had a sense they were when I read it the first time but reading it the second time gave me a full understanding of their relationship (this realization struck when I read the description of the looks they used to give each other and how they’d try not to laugh or else they lost the game). Before “the crime”, they had a very close and loving relationship, with its share of teasing, love, support, and occasional disagreement. Which is why what happens after Briony tells the lie becomes particularly devastating in consequence to their relationship; it’s essentially severed because Leon sided effortlessly with their family instead of Cecilia and their childhood friend, Robbie.

Moving on to Part Two; it’s now 1940 and we’re now solely on Robbie’s POV. He’s in France and he’s in the army, heading north to the evacuation grounds. Here you’re given a glimpse of Robbie’s life those past five years since that summer day; life in prison, his letters to Cecilia, their reunion in London before his training and then the war (which weaves in and out and around each other throughout this portion of the novel). Robbie is clearly not the same person we met in Part One; he’s grimmer now, he’s gone through a lot and he’s a lot more doubtful about himself as he’s beset by tragedies all around him thanks to the war and that struggle with himself as a person, coming to terms with what has happened to him and where he can go from there. The only person sustaining him through all this is Cecilia, who’s stuck by him throughout his ordeal, cutting herself off from her family and becoming a nurse; it’s now her turn to guide Robbie through the waters of his own doubts and his own ordeals. Her words “I love you. Come back. Come back to me” become like a mantra, a prayer, to him to see him through his hardships. He remembers every single memory of her right up to the last few pages of this part when even that begins to wane thanks to the conditions that were around him at Bray Dunes (I never noticed this until the second read). You really get a feel for the conditions and the situation during this period and again, you really get into Robbie’s frame of mind as he also takes into consideration the war and the actions and decisions he made in comparison to the events of 1935.

Part Three takes place in the same year but in this time it’s in London and coming from Briony’s POV. Briony is now working in the hospital as well, as Cecilia put it in her letter to Robbie, as her way of atoning for what’s she’s done. But what’s interesting about this part and that I don’t think I’ve ever come across, she never really deeply reflects in this chapter about what she had done when she was thirteen. At least, it’s never present in the prose for long stretches of time, unlike Robbie who’s haunted by his experiences and his stolen time almost every other paragraph when he’s not in the middle of action. You do however get a glimpse of a nurse’s life during wartime Britain and the way that their jobs are conducted, the order and discipline involved. Which, during my second time around reading the book, parallels quite nicely with Briony’s personality back in the first part when she it’s described that order and discipline was her thing. But here, in 1940 as an 18 year old probationary nurse, you can see subtly that she’s not so much into the order and discipline that the nurse’s profession provided; she secretly rebels through keeping a private journal and that first day of class when she said that her name was now “N. Tallis” and the way she told a dying soldier that her name was Briony. At this stage of the novel, she understands and wants to keep her individuality in whatever way she can. What is interesting about this part is that you do get a glimpse of compassion and gentleness from Briony, something we wouldn’t necessarily associate with her especially with how she was presented in Part One and after the things she’s done, when she talked to the soldier Latimer. It’s a very beautiful and sad dialogue, but it’s very interesting how she interacted with Latimer, providing comfort for the boy in those moments.

But what’s also interesting is the end of this part, when after coming from Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding, when Briony finally comes to Cecilia’s flat for that long-awaited meeting. And lo-and-behold, Robbie’s returned from France, which makes the scene particularly explosive (again, McEwan handled the scene beautifully, I was literally at the edge of my seat when I read this scene because you can just feel the tension in the atmosphere). One thing’s clear that comes out of this scene: Briony may feel guilty about what’s she’s done, she may be working to make amends to it now but it still wouldn’t make up for what happened and for the time they lost. She is not forgiven. I admit, it was a relief to see Robbie finally display all the fury and the bitterness that’s been pented up all throughout the second part at Briony.

Which leads me to the last part of the book, the devastating part of the book. The year is 1999 and Briony is off to celebrate her 77th birthday with what remains of the Tallis (and Quincey) family at their old house in the countryside. You learn she’s become a novelist, that Lola & Paul Marshall are still alive (which made me stop and think how old they were when the events happened and whether it was possible for a 26-year-old Paul Marshall to be so successful in 1935), that she’s suffering from vascular demetia (and that she had a husband for the briefest time—which made me wonder, she got married during WW2 perhaps?; I totally overlooked that the first time around). You have her musing about particular details about the art of writing and researching for novels. Great-grand nieces and nephews perform “The Trials of Arabella” that she wrote that day in 1935. And then the last two pages brought everything to stark realism: that her last book (which should have been her first) was the book the reader has been reading, that she had been researching for this book for a long time, that the confrontation at Cecilia’s flat never happened, that both Robbie and Cecilia died during WW2, both in 1940. Bam. The thrust of reality was just was startling as when the “c” word showed up in the 1935 part in Robbie’s letter, only the effect of this admission has wider reprecussions (which I will discuss in a minute). The end of the novel really left me in a funk (in fact, every time I think about it, it’s left me all sad and thoughtful and morose); the tragedy finally weighs in that not only was time taken away from them thanks to Briony’s lie, but that they never got a chance to make up for that lost time because died during the war, that Briony spent the rest of her life with that unfinished business (another point to get to).

The ending thus gets you wondering about the story itself; as Ian McEwan mentioned in one of the behind the scenes features for the movie DVD, the entire book is a construct of Briony’s. How much had been deviated? How much of this was close to the actual events? How close is this to the feelings and perspectives that Robbie and Cecilia must’ve had, particularly during Part Two? What’s interesting is that, during a second read of the novel, there are subtle hints that indicate the truly happened to Cecilia and Robbie, at least in some part (the following are some that I recall off-hand):

  • Robbie keeps on talking about a wound in his lower rib, possibly shrapnel. Getting nicked by anything at this period, in a wartime condition, is a very grave wound indeed, it just takes longer to take effect on the individual. The mention of it every now and then gave indication that it was seemed relatively serious; by the end of Part Two, it seemed as though Robbie was not entirely “there” anymore that even his companion, Nettle (who is a very amusing character by the way), noticed. The last few pages of the part was also extremely worrisome; everything from revisting his last moment as a free man in 1935 with Cecilia just before he’s taken away by the police to the water tasting metallic to Nettle saying that he looked terrible, is indicative of a cliffhanger—will he survive? Knowing the outcome, it’s chilling that what was written could be a description of his last moments alive.
  • It took a second read for me to realize this, but when Briony mentioned that Uncle Clem’s vase had been broken into pieces by Betty was hinting at Cecilia and Robbie’s fate. The vase went back to their encounter by the fountain in 1935, that moment that set off a number of these events up to its tragic conclusion. Additionally, when Cecilia was told that the vase had broke, her reaction seemed rather…off. Remember that she understood the importance of the vase (having been very pissed off at Robbie that day by the fountain) and despite no longer being in contact with her family, she would’ve at least have acted more upset by the destruction of the vase.
  • Cecilia living close to Bedlam and the last scene Briony has of the lovers were at the station. After paying, Briony turned around and they were gone. Cecilia died in Bedlam station when a bomb dropped in the area in October 1940.

Thinking about this also makes you wonder about the nature of Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship as well, what parts were actually true and which were constructed. I remember reading in an forum post (yes, I do scan them from time to time) whether it was possible to think that maybe Cecilia and Robbie weren’t in love after all, that they had a moment of lust between them. I do not agree with this possibility, as a moment of lust wouldn’t have made Cecilia break off from her family the way she did; a rational mind would’ve prevailed and she loved her family, which makes one realize how grave the situation was that made her break off the way she did. Additionally, Briony mentioned that their letters were preserved and in the War Museum; she would have access to their correspondence and their feelings that way. Which also means that that scene in the cafe when they met for that brief moment before Robbie went off to training did occur, she would’ve had access to mentions of that cottage by the beach, maybe even the picture she gave him. I’d like to think that majority of Briony’s constructs would’ve come from the last scene, when they all were in the same room together, that was the fiction. Of course, particulars on the wartime conditions would’ve been deviated here and there since research can only do so much, but so far my thinking is that the basics of what was laid down in the book, especially in Part Two because she definitely did not witness these things, where true. I remember the first time I read the book, the way I would understand the book was that Parts Two and Three were subject to fiction and construct given the way that the parts had no chapters, unlike Part One.

The thought of what was true/what wasn’t/what deviated from the original also leads to another thought one is left with at the end of the novel: does this serve as Briony’s atonement? How can one truly atone for one’s past mistakes, actions, failures? Briony certainly was at fault on a number of levels: for assuming too much, for acting on her assumptions on the basis of her own sense of self-righteousness, for being nosy and opening the letter, for lying that Robbie assaulted Lola, for failing to own up to her falsehood and for failing to make amends sooner with her sister and her lover, who died before she could own up to her actions. Thinking about the Third Part a bit more, you do get a glimpse of Briony berating herself for not having a spine, a backbone; could this be interpreted a way of knowing that Briony was self-flagerating herself for her crimes? The human mind, a person’s consciousness, can be a pretty powerful scolding mechanism; it can keep bashing you over the head with your guilt if need be. But did Briony really, truly feel her weight of her mistake? If she did, she gave no indication of it.

What makes it even doubtful is the last 2 – 3 paragraphs of the entire book, as Briony reflects on the nature of storytelling, of happy endings, of the purpose of writing and the novelist’s power as God over his or her creative masterpiece. It is convincing as a case towards storytelling why we write stories, about happy endings. But as a person who had committed a wrong and has spent her entire life with it hanging over her head, those paragraphs comes off as arrogance and does nothing to alleviate her partially of her fault. I remember when I read it the first time that I went from incredibly sad over Cecilia and Robbie’s tragedy to upset over Briony’s arrogance of the happy ending she gave to her sister and her lover; it doesn’t erase the fact that she had denied them that happy ending in real life through her actions. Sure, her novel will remain long after all the actors are dead, but the fact that it happened to a few individuals and those individuals know, that’s enough to know that she’s not off the hook per say. On a side note, the theme of storytelling really only appears as a distinctive form and theme in Parts One and Four, from Briony’s POV. It’s interesting and important for Briony’s storyline, but it takes some paying attention to fully realize that indeed the entire novel is about storytelling and its power.

Overall, this is a fantastic novel, I’m quite pleased that I read it as my first book by Ian McEwan. All the elements in this book worked; nothing seemed forced or contrived and it’s a beautiful, devastating, readable novel.

Rating: ★★★★★

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One Response to “Review: Atonement”

  1. […] or not to check out this novel. On the one hand, I love Ian McEwan’s writing; Atonement (review) is one of my favourite novels of all time. But on the other hand, the last few books I read by him […]

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