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Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

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I do not have the talent to describe the depth of my appreciation for this book. What struck me right from the beginning and continued all the way through was McEwan’s ability to convey the voice of a preoccupied 12-year-old girl through her early teens and then into her seventies. He captures the spirit and the nuances of each age that are so very difficult to portray. I hope the movie can do this book the justice it deserves.

Briony Tallis begins the story consumed with a play she has written, The Trials of Arabella, and her desire to act it out for the family. She has chosen the cast without considering their desire, or lack thereof, to be in a play; it is to be made up of her cousins – twin boys and a young woman, Lola – who will be staying with her because of the imminent divorce of their parents. Briony actively resists considering the divorce and what the children might be going through, oblivious to their emotions though they are on the surface and ready to boil over. Briony is depicted as a typical, self-involved, curious preteen with a tremendous imagination. The world is her theatre.

An example of this obsessive self-interest is when she fantasizes about her mother’s death.

There would be a funeral in the village at which Briony’s dignified reticence would hint at the vastness of her sorrow. As her friends came up to murmur their condolences they would feel awed by the scale of her tragedy. She saw herself standing alone in a great arena, within a towering coliseum, watched not only by all the people she knew but by all those she would ever know, the whole cast of her life, assembled to love her in her loss.

Cecilia Tallis, Briony’s older sister, is beginning to understand that her restlessness and inner discontent may be a result of romantic feelings for the cleaning woman’s son, Robbie. She and Robbie discover their mutual attraction in two strange encounters, both of which are partially observed by Briony. In her fantasy Briony portrays Robbie as an attacker and maniac, in order to protect her vision of Cecilia. When her cousin Lola is raped later that evening, it is no stretch for Briony to be convinced of Robbie’s guilt. “Her vital role fueled her certainty.” Briony’s original skit is never seen; in lieu of it is the starring role she must now play in accusing Robbie of the rape.

The story picks up three years later when Robbie is released from prison. Prior to the accusation, Cecilia’s father had been subsidizing Robbie’s education, with plans to send him to medical school. However, after prison, he joins the army. The reader finds out that after Robbie was convicted Cecilia left her home and became a ward nurse, cutting all ties to her family while awaiting Robbie’s return from service. They exchange promises and words of love through letters.

Five years later, Briony has begun to feel the burden of her actions. “How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.” She goes into nursing training at the hospital where Cecilia once worked, trying to atone by becoming a nurse like her sister even though she is wholly unsuited for a caretaking role. She tries to absolve herself by rewriting the story for publication, but it is rejected because it does not have “backbone.” Seeing this as a metaphor for her life, Briony sets about to undo the injustice she has wrought. She watches her cousin Lola marry her rapist. The reader suspects, through clever writing, that Lola has known all along who raped her as she enters this marriage.

The story picks up again on the morning of Briony’s 77th birthday. Once again I was struck by the ability of McEwan to portray the thoughts and feelings of an older woman. “However withered, I still feel myself to be exactly the same person I’ve always been. Hard to explain that to the young. We may look truly reptilian, but we’re not a separate tribe.”

Briony returns as the guest of honor to her family home, where the children and grandchildren of her extended family put on her original play The Trials of Arabella. She has become a successful novelist and is confronting a diagnosis of vascular dementia with fortitude – she ended up having a backbone after all. She was, however, unsuccessful in reaching atonement; still self-centered, she must shed a positive light on the outcome of her offense. “There was a crime. But there were also the lovers…It occurs to me that I have not traveled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play.”

While I must resist spoiling the ending, I leave you with this portentous quote from The Trials of Arabella:

My darling one, you are young and lovely,
But inexperienced, and though you think
The world is at your feet,
It can rise up and tread on you.

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About Alexandria Jackson