I first encountered Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the film, directed by Joe Wright with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I remember the film having that dreamy quality which is so often attempted in excess by amateurs. That the film managed to play this style well marks its genius, an early verdict that is justified more and more as the story unfolded. One scene, in particular, stuck with me that I looked forward to reading the book just to see how that visual transition translated into words.
First things first. I would not want to spoil anyone who has not yet read or watched Atonement the pleasure of its surprise. So, for the sake of this review, I think it will be safe to refer to that scene as “Briony’s reveal”. And also, I am getting ahead of myself by starting with a scene that is obviously a twist in the plot and so occurs in its later parts. And so we backtrack.
Our story revolves around Briony Tallis, budding writer and little sister to Cecilia Tallis who is, in turn, a childhood friend of Robbie Turner. One summer day, Briony becomes an accidental witness to a rising romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie, a scene which she (mis)interprets through the eyes of a child. Shortly afterwards, things spin out of anyone’s control and Briony finds herself responsible for a crime the consequences of which play out for years.
The artistic work that is Atonement is many things and almost everything that I find it to be strikes a chord with me. As a novel it is self-referential, using Briony’s artistic endeavors to reflect on the relationship of an author with her work; it even features a kind of foreshadowing, if you can call it that, with Briony’s The Trials of Arabella. It is a love story, not one where knights save damsels but one where a happy ending is as much a possibility as damnation. It is a war story, portraying war in all the exhaustion and futility it delivers. It is also, to paraphrase from someone else, a classic English novel with the “c” word in it.
…he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”
It is at this point in the novel that the plot is stirred, the storm confirmed. You are not reading Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to say, where ladies and gentlemen spend almost a whole book in an emotional deadlock. In this story, women smoke, men are untrustworthy, and lives are ruined.
This is how Atonement sets-up its exploration of the burdens and complexities of growing up. Through the consequences of Briony’s misinterpretations and misplaced intentions, the novel waxes poetic on lost time and on a love that could have been. What keeps Atonement‘s take on this cliched plot element fresh is in how it gives context to the characters’ hopes and longings. For our lovers, there is the shadow of WWII hanging over them, around which they build their dreams and plans of being together. For Briony, that dread feeling of guilt never leaves and strengthens over time, which leads to her reveal, her act of atonement.
The years where Briony ages is obscured from the reader but her transformation, her growing up, is fleshed out well for the readers to follow. Taken plainly, the bulk of this work is not in how Briony atones for her faults but in how she grows the backbone to take responsibility of her mistakes.
“Growing up,” he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?”
As someone who has, on multiple occasions, tried to spin up a story, I cannot help but admire Ian McEwan’s mastery of words (and, consequently, Joe Wright et. al.’s visual language). I am delighted to report that this is one of the books whose opening I’ve found to take me in at once, a sequence which was repeated well in the opening montage of the film.
McEwan also has that gift of voicing his character’s inner thoughts so well. It is what fleshes them out, what makes them real and tangible. His descriptions of Briony’s initial attempts at writing, her reactions upon her initial encounter with the aforementioned “c” word, places her so well as a kid. Later on, McEwan treats us with Robbie’s exhausted thoughts while walking a war-torn France. And then of course, there is Briony’s own experience in the war, a part of her growing up as much as her crime is.
All those praises said, I still think that Briony’s reveal is better handled as a visual experience. I may be biased, having seen the film first, but I can’t help but think that the way Briony’s reveal is done in the book would require a bit of experience with authors and the way they sign introductions, the extra leaves of their publications. It is not something which even most well-read people would’ve understood at once; I admit that, when I reached that point, it still took me a few moments to realize how the reveal was handled, and I have seen the film at that. Had I not seen the film, I think it will take me the first few pages of the succeeding part to realize what just happened. Not that I have a better suggestion in how this bit could be handled in the book.
Take the book, take the film, it does not matter. I think both works are sufficient to convince anyone that an atonement is an act that requires as much gravity as any act concerned with a heartfelt emotion.
Did she really think that she could hide … and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? … Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella … It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.