In My Good Books: ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

You’ve probably heard of it, watched it, or considered reading it: Atonement. This novel published in 2001 quickly became a highly acclaimed classic, as it deals with family, love, war, and principally, guilt. I have now read this book twice and I would happily read it again. McEwan’s novel explores the dangerous encounter of childhood imagination and grave reality, as the protagonist’s youthful mistake haunts her entire future. Atonement equally portrays the nature of writing itself and provokes the reader to question the narrator, and consider the subjectivity of writing. Atonement is an utterly unique novel that leaves the reader astonished.

Atonement begins in 1935 in the setting of the Tallis family home and follows the childish pleasures and concerns of Briony, an enthusiastic writer. The novel is firmly situated in a domestic setting as the story believably illustrates relationships between cousins, sisters and parents. Robbie Turner is the family’s gardener, a humble and seemingly harmless young man. Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, appears as a wilful and modern character, as she is constantly frustrated with her younger sister’s presence. On one pivotal summer’s day, Briony witnesses Cecilia strip down and jump in the fountain under the watchful eye of Robbie. An allegedly secret romance begins between Cecilia and Robbie as the pair finally confront their suppressed feelings for each other. A series of events rapidly occur which cause Briony to consider Robbie as a threat to both Cecilia and all young women. Consequently, Briony makes a grave accusation against Robbie that will perpetually tarnish both Briony’s and the young lovers’ futures.

The beginning of the novel captures the simultaneously playful and dangerous imagination of Briony, and through the experience of the protagonist, McEwan illustrates the naivety of children. Some critics suggest that Briony’s accusation against Robbie stems from jealousy. However on reading this novel I found that Briony’s confusion stems rather from her understandable childlike naivety and innocence. McEwan’s writing overall seems to often encapsulate the innocence of children, as The Children Act similarly explores the autonomy of children and The Child in Time illustrates the vulnerability of a young child. Hence Atonement similarly depicts an awareness of the imagination of children which is easily distorted.

Atonement follows the journey of Briony as she continually seeks her sister’s forgiveness and tries to atone for her former mistake. The novel shows her longing for familial acceptance as she sacrifices her own happiness in order to try to make amends. However Briony’s efforts are somewhat futile, and ultimately McEwan refuses to give the writer a superficial happy ending for the family. Hence while the novel begins in the dream-like imagination of Briony, as the novel progresses she must gradually accept the grave reality of both her family, and the war stricken country. To an extent Atonement presents a negative experience of maturation as Briony’s ageing only brings her guilt, responsibility and sacrifice.

The narrative perspectives of Atonement are inter-weaved and tangled as McEwan presents the subjectivity of experience. Equally, the shocking end to the novel further disorients the reader and leaves us uncertain as to the truth. Hence this fantastic novel is an expertly constructed mesh of narration that questions the notion of writing itself. Yet, Atonement is also simply a novel that follows the experience of one girl who makes a mistake and spends her entire life regretting it. Whether illustrating love, grief, imagination or warfare McEwan’s writing never fails to move the reader.

~ Hattie Hansford

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