Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Atonement by Ian McEwan (23 down, 77 to go)

This is the first time I've read Atonement or Ian McEwan. It is the first-person narrative of Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old child in an upper-class British family, beginning in 1935. Published in 2001, I believe by definition it is post-modern, but it reads more like a modernist novel.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many novels, Atonement started a bit slow as the characters were developed, but by the time the principal conflict was revealed I was captivated. The conflict: a gross injustice, had me thinking I would dislike this novel as there seemed little hope of setting things right, but I clung to the clue in the title and hoped for satisfaction. But of course, a novel of such acclaim could not be so simple or predictable. The innocent are falsely accused, punished, and never fully exonerated, while the guilty go free and prosper. All of which would ordinarily cause me to hate the story, but credit the author, somehow McEwan does a masterful job of confusing my emotions, and creating an unexpected ending that left me somewhat relieved, though not entirely satisfied. It's simply too complex to explain, so I'll spare the spoiler.

The story revolves around the upper class Tallis family, beginning at their estate somewhere in England, 1935 and principally around Briony, the youngest of the Tallis children. Briony is a 13-year-old aspiring writer. One of the most surprising parts of the story is how likeable Briony is, in spite of being the cause of the great injustice. She realizes her fault – her crime, too late to prevent the catastrophic results. The story is her atonement, which is imperfect; justice is never truly served. Perhaps that is the charm. In my experience injustice is seldom set completely right. I think that is part of the masterpiece. McEwan resisted the obvious plot, the vindication of the pure, the downfall of the evil. Most often, when the natural laws of right and wrong are violated, there are scars that endure. McEwan forsook happily ever after, for more authentic consequences, but still with a sense of hope and triumph.

Briony might even be called the heroine, in spite of the fact that she is responsible for the miscarriage of justice. She is never hateable, often pitiable, and ultimately admirable.

I found one particular nuance of the story wonderfully vindicating – for myself. Briony's first attempt at publication receives a rejection from the publishing company, that elaborately advises her writing shows talent, but that she should abandon stream of consciousness style, for something more narrative. AMEN! It's an opinion I know, but I've made it clear in this blog how much I dislike stream of consciousness writing. It was nice to find someone, even an imaginary publisher, who agrees.

Film Rendition: 2007 version starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly is a very faithful portrayal...until the very end. In the novel, the author leaves a little doubt in the reader's mind about two possible endings, and which is true. Though, neither is truly true; it's a nuance of the book that is hard to describe. Anyway, the film leaves no doubt and that was a bit disappointing. Otherwise very good. It also starred three different actresses as Briony at three different ages, including Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Briony.



  1. The reveal at the end of this book is wonderfully surprising and almost, shocking.
    I had to go back and reread the relevant pages that made the truth at the ending understandable. I loved how McEwan gave you all the information you needed to, but hid it so well right until the end.

    As far as shock endings that create controversy & discussion goes - it compares to The Life of Pi. I've only seen the movie of it, but that ending created much discussion in my family which continues to this day!

  2. I hadn't thought of the comparison the ending with Life of Pi, but you are correct. I've both read, and seen the film of Life of Pi, and the movie does a better job with the ending than does the film Atonement.

  3. Having watched the movie rendition of Atonement, I had no desire to read the book, but now I'm thinking I might enjoy it after reading your review...thank you!

    1. Yeah, I definitely recommend the book. Thanks for the feedback.


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