Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I found a paper-back copy of this novel for $1 at a used book store. A very good deal.

It's a hot summer day in 1935. The Tallis family has three young cousin's from the north coming to stay while their parents divorce. Briony Tallis, a budding writer at the age of 13 has composed a play for the cousins to perform. Her older sister, Cecilia, eagerly awaits the arrival of their elder brother Leon from the city. He brings along with him a wealthy candy maker named Paul Marshall.
Cecilia is back from college where she attended along with their cleaning lady's son, Robbie. They avoided each other at school and now back on the family estate together seem to do nothing but make each other anxious or annoyed. They have a scuffle by the fountain in the garden which Briony observes from her window and misinterprets.
The events of the dinner party that evening are complicated by what Briony believes she knows about Robbie.
The second part of the book picks up five years later and follows first Robbie and then Briony through their experiences during the war-- Robbie as a solider and Briony as a nurse in training. It shows how one day and one mistake shapes their entire lives from that day five years ago.

The book combined several different style elements. The first part of the story takes place mainly in the course of one day. Each chapter jumps into the perspective of a different character, but remains in third person. Later in the story, Briony tries writing in a stream of consciousness style made popular in that era by Virginia Woolf, the first part of the novel mimics elements of that style discussed later in the second part.
All of the characters have a rich internal life and it is interesting to see how they intertwine. The style changes in the second part of the book, following one character at a time and stretching over longer periods of time, condensing them.
The epilogue changes again. It is told in the first person, reflective like a journal entry.
Atonement is a beautiful, but heartbreaking story. It balances both intellect and emotion and brings a startling reality and clarity to both the trials of family relationships and the trials of war. Some of the descriptions of injury and illness in the second part of the book may bother more squeamish readers.
Ultimately, it becomes a meditation on love and forgiveness. What it means to work toward being forgiven and forgiving yourself-- spending a lifetime atoning for a sin of childhood. And the epilogue may leave tears in your eyes.