Real life, her life now beginning, had sent her a villain in the form of an old family friend with strong, awkward limbs and a rugged friendly face who used to carry her on his back, and swim with her in the river, holding her against the current. That seemed about right – truth was strange and deceptive, it had to be struggled for, against the flow of the everyday. This was exactly what no one would have expected, and of course villains were not announced with hisses or soliloquies, they id not come cloaked in black, with ugly expressions. -From Atonement, page 147-
Ian McEwan’s NBCC award winning novel (which was also shortlisted for the 2001 Man Booker Prize) begins in England during a heatwave. Briony Tallis, a dramatic child obsessed with writing stories, prepares for the arrival of her Northern cousins – beautiful and manipulative Lola and her twin brothers – and her brother Leon. Briony’s older sister Cecilia meanwhile laments the long summer ahead of her and spars with the charwoman’s son Robbie. The initial chapters of Atonement move slowly, setting up the characters and establishing the sense of place. Set in the mid-1930s, the novel feels old-fashioned. Despite the slow pace, I enjoyed McEwan’s beautiful writing…and so once the plot and characters are fully established and things begin to unravel at the Tallis residence, my interest was quickly engaged.
The structure of Atonement is unusual – spanning several decades, and written from multiple points of view in three distinct parts which take the reader from England to France during WWII. But, the structure is one of the things that works well for a novel which thematically examines the interpretation of truth. McEwan manages to keep his reader unsettled, wondering at the characters’ motivations and leaving loose ends. It is not until the final page is turned that the reader is able to verify the whole story.
I can understand why Atonement captured the attention of the judges for prizes like the NBCC and the Booker, as well as the scriptwriters. It is a fully realized, very literary effort by an author who understands how to string together words which inspire, intrigue and tug at the heartstrings. I am happy that I waded through the early parts of the novel when the going was methodical. The reader who sticks with McEwan as he sets up the story will be rewarded in the end.
Another excellent review of this book can be found here at What Kate’s Reading.