Rating: 5 Stars
Briony is a immature, romantic, artistic young girl with a vivid imagination. She witnesses what she thinks is brutish behavior by Robbie, the son of her family’s maid, towards his sister, Cecilia. Later, she willfully misconstrues a situation to falsely accuse Robbie of rape. Robbie is convicted and is sent to jail. He’s released from jail to serve in the looming WWII, where he is part of the Dunkirk evacuation. Cecilia, who is mutually in love with Robbie, has abandoned the family to become a nurse. Briony, now haunted by the guilt of her actions, has become a nurse trainee. This is the story of Briony’s atonement for her actions.
This started off strangely. I found myself repeatedly checking when this was written. It was written in 2001. The first hundred or so pages felt like a Henry James novel. The characters are all so sensitive and well bred, almost to the point of sterility. They occupy the rarefied age of English privilege, where working for your own living is considered beneath you. What’s important is what you read, who you listen to, and if you’re a woman, who you’re going to marry. This part was set in 1935. Even in 1935, this would have to have been a dying world. It felt odd to me to be reading a book from this century that channeled James’ characters and world so stylistically.
It then seemed to morph more into the psychological nuances emanating out of the choices that the English upper crust make that is more reminiscent of E.M. Forster.
In the second part, set in Dunkirk, and in the third part, set in London right after the Dunkirk evacuation, McEwan seems to break free of this construct and is writing what appears to be a more modern novel. Could this have been intentional? Certainly, the start of WWII marks the final end of whatever the equivalent of the English Belle Epoque was. The change to a more realistic style could very well have been adopted to mark this change.
After a somewhat stylistically bewildering start, Atonement unfolds wonderfully. The struggles of Briony trying to become useful in this world and Robbie grimly trying to survive and get back to England for the sole purpose of reuniting with Cecilia are gripping tales.
In the works that I’ve read, it is so difficult to end a novel well. How do you, in one image or one scene, manage to pull together all of the threads that is winding through a novel?
McEwan absolutely nails it. I can think of few other novels where the ending is exactly right in style, form, and plot. A few examples that I can think of is The Age of Innocence, The Crossing (which, even now, thinking about it, nearly wrecks me), and bizarrely enough, McTeague, a middling novel with an absolutely brilliant ending.
I would place Atonement’s ending right up with them. It’s an ending that I’ll never forget and earns it my highest rating.