Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

atonementFirst published on 10th May, 2002 in StarTwo


By Ian McEwan

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 388 pages

THE NOVEL begins with the description of a child’s bedroom. It is ”the only tidy upstairs room in the house”. Its owner, Briony Tallis, is an almost obsessively secretive and orderly child. Her need to organise, her desire to invest a meaning, purpose, function and station to everything is seen in the neatness of her surroundings: every thing is in its place and there’s a place for every thing. Soon, you think, she will apply this belief to her dealings with people. But not yet. At 13, living in near-seclusion on the family estate, Briony’s social interactions are limited to those with her family members who treat the baby of the house with indulgence, affection and condescension. This frustrates the girl, who sees only too clearly how ridiculous she may appear, with her locked drawers and secret codes, keeping hidden things that no one is the least curious about.

Feeling a lack control over her own appallingly mundane existence and faced with the awkwardness and uncertainty of approaching adolescence, she turns to writing stories, retreating into make-believe worlds where incredible and awful things happen with almost clockwork regularity and lives can be reduced, organised and summed up within a neat paragraph or two.

One such work of fiction is The Trials Of Arabella, a play that Briony hopes to stage as a welcome to her beloved older brother, Leon. His holiday at home (he works in a bank in London) coincides propitiously with the arrival of the children of Mrs Tallis’s wayward sister, Hermione.

The sexually-aware, manipulative Lola and her boisterous but insecure twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot, have been dumped indefinitely with the Tallis’ by their warring parents. Briony ignores the circumstances of her cousins’ presence in her home, withholding sympathy and choosing to use them merely to help impress Leon. What she does not anticipate is Lola emotionally blackmailing her way into the leading role and the twins proving to be belligerent, reluctant and wooden actors. With this inauspicious beginning, Briony’s play has every chance of failing.

The Trials Of Arabella is a melodrama which begins tragically with a duped woman, but ends happily, with a wedding. Every action and emotion in it is extreme, blown out of all proportion but, all the same, grounded in the reality of Briony’s thoughts and feelings.

Writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis felt that all fiction is a version of fact and storytellers are sub-creators, retelling versions of an ultimate truth created by God, the master storyteller. They also believed that all stories already exist and are merely waiting to be written and it is the writer’s experience, imagination and inspiration that determine how close the finished product succeeds in resembling its original truth. If this is indeed so, The Trials Of Arabella may be seen as a version of an original story entitled The Trials Of Briony; it may even be prophetic in its themes of false appearances, second chances and redemption. Some may also see the collapse of the play as hinting at Briony’s ultimate failure in life.

Does Briony fail? On that morning in the summer of 1935, when she wakes full of anticipation of the success of her play and the resulting love and admiration of her brother, life is bright with potential and promise, and there can be no suspicion of the trouble that will soon follow.

Later the same day she witnesses a scene that she profoundly misunderstands. It changes her without her realising it. If anything, Briony, at this point, views her blameless life with some distaste. Later, when her imagination gets the better of her and is transformed from a means of escape to a stumbling block and a trap, she will wish desperately and ineffectually for a return of ignorance and innocence. And for much of her adulthood, Briony will attempt, with strangely dispassionate doggedness, to make amends for her sins.

By then, both the reader and Briony will realise that her fate is irretrievably bound with her imagination and her writing.

The former proves to be her undoing, but, in conjunction with the latter, it may also be the only hope for salvation – her own as well as others’.

Briony’s actions as an uncomprehending child affect the lives of all concerned. Especially altered is the future of two people: Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, newly down from Cambridge, restless and unsure of her next move; and Robbie Turner, Cecilia’s childhood friend who is also the son of the Tallis’ charlady. He and Cecilia are at Cambridge at the same time, but their easy friendship does not survive university. There is inexplicable tension between them now.

Cecilia suspects she is being mocked. Robbie thinks she despises him. We soon learn that the reason for this unease is a desire and love for each other, suppressed, denied and overlooked in deference to good manners, social position and self-doubt. When the truth is revealed, their joy is overwhelming, but short-lived.

Atonement, although it may not at first strike the reader as such, is a love story. At its centre is a couple whose love for each other is both a source of pain and hope. The relationship, in itself pure and sustaining, is stained by bad memories and bad faith, and feeds on desperation and deprivation.

It is a heartbreaking love affair, described with compassion and passion, powerfully affecting in its realistically mundane detail, firing the reader’s own imagination, provoking feelings of tenderness, making him care intensely about the fate of the pair.

Ian McEwan, who is somewhat of a stylistic chameleon, has produced a book that, through its combination of writing styles, brilliantly succeeds in conveying the idea of art imitating life. Not wanting to give too much away, I will just say that there are two novelists and a myriad of influences at work on this highly literary, absolutely serious work of fiction.

Each serves his/its purpose – setting a scene, creating and/or sustaining a mood, painting a character and making him real, asking questions (most interestingly about the nature of forgiveness and the power of the written word) and suggesting, but never giving, absolute answers.

Can a novelist be trusted to tell the truth? Does his omniscience aid or hinder his objectivity? Can he be both honest and fair? Should he use his book to air his beliefs and doubts; to score a point; settle a score; and even to make amends? And should he be excused for sacrificing accuracy in favour of dramatic effect and vice versa?

Atonement was nominated for last year’s Booker Prize, but did not win. However, many would consider it worthier of the award than McEwan’s 1998 winner, Amsterdam.

While the latter is an amusing and entertaining black comedy that you can finish in a couple of hours and thereafter forget forever, Atonement begs to be re-read, remembered and considered. If you have time for only one book by McEwan and you want to be moved and made to think, this should be it.

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