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.