A review of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001).
Here lies the second installment of my book-saving pursuits. You would not believe the kind of trouble they get themselves into when neglected. Why, I saw one just yesterday sitting in the gutter with its little letters on show for everyone to see, lolling around all stained with rum and murmuring things like “unappreciated” and “strike” and “I’m a Taurus” (truly).
The spot of brilliance within the literary universe that I saved from almost certain doom this week (or, you know, a bookshelf that wasn’t mine) was Ian McEwan’s Atonement. More than a spot, really – this novel is a large puddle of despairing beauty in which one may cautiously dip a toe then be suddenly unable to swim, completely submerged in McEwan’s heartbroken world.
Atonement is the tragic tale of Briony Tallis and the terrible mistake she makes as a child that shatters the universe of those around her. As a young girl, she misinterprets the heated relationship that develops between her elder sister, Cecilia, and the son of the housekeeper, Robbie Turner. In a mind shaped by childish jealousy and prone to active imagination, Robbie’s face becomes that of the man Briony later witnesses raping her cousin, Lola. Without hesitation, Briony assuredly testifies that this was what she saw and Robbie is wrongly jailed for the crime. For this lie, Briony spends the rest of her life seeking atonement.
Robbie and Cecilia’s love story is absolutely heartbreaking; there is no word to explain how wretched one feels reading of the way they are so unjustly and unnecessarily torn apart. However, I was most captivated by the character of Briony. It is impossible to not loathe her as she condemns Robbie and yet she is only a child (and it doesn’t seem quite right to loathe a child). Furthermore, she is a child in a house where no one troubles to explain anything to her, where she is left to indulgently dwell in the alternative worlds her mind harbours, rarely stepping foot in reality. McEwan weaves a comparison between himself as an author of literary fiction, and Briony as an author of ‘real-life’ fiction. There is a relationship between the life of the author and the life of Briony Tallis that broadens and evolves the way that one thinks about literature.
Whenever people ask me what my favourite book is, my brain thinks it helpful to proudly hold up flashing placards of every book I’m embarrassed I read (I swear Twilight is haunting me) leaving me to stutter awkwardly and exclaim: “Oh, but there’s SO many” in a vague attempt to sound worldly and bookish. Well, today I am able to answer with Atonement. It is one of a few, but I cannot state emphatically enough that I think everyone should read it. There is so much frustration, regret and anguish within its pages, and it is no less than the most passionate and beautifully detailed book I have had the fortune to enjoy.
The novel was adapted into a film in 2007 by Joe Wright, starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, and a young Saoirse Ronan. If you haven’t yet … Well, you simply must. If for no other reason than that green dress.
On that note, I think it appropriate that we move onto The National and how they also broke my heart.
Sorrow found me when I was young,
Sorrow waited, sorrow won.
Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy.
‘Cause I don’t wanna get over you.
Love Claire x