Atonement – Book Review

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.

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  1. Ah, I see you did stick it out, and it WAS worth it.

    I just listened to the audio book of On Chesil Beach, his newest work, which is a novella. I loved it, and would recommend the audio book because McEwan himself is the reader, and there’s a very good interview with him at the end.

    My review is here:

    • Myrthe on June 18, 2008 at 04:49

    Like you, I had a bit of a problem getting into the story, but after that I got hooked and absolutely loved the book.

  2. I just started this one and am having trouble with the slow pace… I’m determined to stick with it, though, and your review definitely helps with that! Thanks. 🙂

  3. I’ve heard so many good things about this book – but I read Chesil Beach last year and it really turned me off McEwan… Maybe one day I might give this one a go…

    • Teddy on June 18, 2008 at 17:24

    Excellent review! This one has been on my TBR for a very long time! I loved the movie.

    • Wendy on June 18, 2008 at 19:56

    RR: YES, it was worth it 🙂 I have heard mixed reviews of On Chesil Beach and so far haven’t picked up a copy. But now I’m curious!

    Myrthe: I had heard such good things about the book so I *did* stick with it…and I’m glad I did!

    Heather: Hang in there…it gets better, I promise!

    Mrs. S.: As I mentioned above – I’ve heard mixed reviews on Chesil Beach. I can’t say whether it is similar in style to this one since this is my first McEwan book.

    Tedd: Thanks! Don’t wait to read it – its worth the read!

    • Andi on June 19, 2008 at 08:26

    I’ve had Atonement on my shelves for YEARS, and I’ve only picked it up and flipped through it a couple of times. Having read On Chesil Beach earlier this year, I am SO loving McEwan now. Thanks for a great review. I’m bumping it up on the TBR.

    • tracy on June 19, 2008 at 18:33

    The movie is really good too:)

  4. Like you, I struggled a bit through the first part of the novel, but it definitely was worth it in the end. I am glad you enjoyed it!

    • Wendy on June 21, 2008 at 08:15

    Andi: I just picked up On Chesil Beach the other day! LOL! Hope you love this one.

    Tracy: I’ve heard that…and I’ll have to see it sometime!

    WendyCat: Almost everyone says the beginning bogged them down, but then they loved it!

    • Kate on June 22, 2008 at 12:32

    Hi there, I came over from Semicolon’s roundup! I also loved this book, probably one of my favorites this year – I reviewed it over on mine as well. However I had sort of the opposite problem with the pacing – the beginning absolutely sucked me in, then I thought it slowed tremendously when it got to the section of Robbie in France. How odd!

    Great review!

    • Wendy on June 24, 2008 at 15:25

    Kate: Thanks for stopping in! That is funny about how we were so opposite in our opinion about pacing! Just goes to show you that for every book there are many opinions 🙂

    • Pam on October 30, 2008 at 07:56

    I am ambivalent about this book. I garee it is beautifully written and engaging, but it first presents the picture as Briony mis-reading Lola’s rape, due to her belief that Robbie is a sex maniac. Why does Lola not expree her belief that the perpetrator is really Paul Marshall? After all, he attacked her earlier that day (or is this too just Briony’s over-fertile imagination?
    Later, we are told that Lola is as much to blame as Briony. It is never made clear why Lola decides to marry Paul Marshall. I am disturbed by the idea that a rape victim would want to marry someone who had raped her. This is a disturbing element to the book.

    • Wendy on October 30, 2008 at 08:02

    Pam: I agree – that is a disturbing element to the story. I do wonder if it is a glimpse into the times – that people during that period in history did not think a man could rape his wife, and women were considered property to some extent. Perhaps Lola’s decision was a way of reconciling the rape somehow…a way to erase it by making her attacker “legitimate” through marriage? I’m really reaching here, but I have no way of understanding this as I see it through 21st century eyes.

    • Pam on October 31, 2008 at 03:21

    Thanks for your reply.

    I agree that attitudes to rape were even worse in the 1930s than they are now, but Ian McEwan wrote the book recently, and although he sets it in England in the 1930s and 1940s, he owes it to the reader, I think, to tell us a bit about what is going on in Lola’s mind.

    The whole thrust of the book is that Briony did a terrible thing- sending an innocent man to jail by false testimony. Briony has indeed done a terrible thing, albeit that she persuaded herself of the truth of it, due to her mis-reading of the significance of the interactions between her sister and Robbie at the fountain and in the library. Briny’s crime is terrible – but the equally serious crime of rape is really little more than a backdrop to this. That would be fair enough- it’s up to the author to decide what he or she wants to focus on- but the fact that Lola married her attacker just jars, for me. Why did McEwan feel the need to include this? What does it add to the story? Paul Marshall must have threatened Lola after the first attack, not to tell her aunt that he was the one who had bruised her arms and scratched her. It is easy to believe that she would be so terrified of him that she would keep quiet about it, since that’s how paedophiles and rapists often operate, but then it makes no sense that he marries him.

    It reminds me of the book “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded” by Samuel Richardson, a book written in 1740. Pamela is a 15 year old maid whose master is “Mr. B”. B repeatedly tries to rape her. She repeatedly fights him off, so he tells everyone she is a “fallen woman” and sends her to work somewhere else. He later tries to set her up as his mmistress, but she refuses to agree to this. Finally, he decides to marry her, despite the gap in their social classes. Again, it blurs the line between rape and “seduction” and suggests that rapists are little more than over-eager seducers.

    Lola marrying Paul seems to send out the message that she suffered no great trauma in the rape, or even that she secretly fancied Paul, so it wasn’t really rape at all…


    • Wendy on October 31, 2008 at 08:28

    Pamela: *nods* I do see your point…I agree that McEwan should have let the reader see what Lola’s thoughts were…An interesting thought I had which was stimulated by your mention of pedophilia was that Lola was quite young. Having worked with abused children for some years before I became a PT, I was always dismayed at the psychology that happens between an adult in power and the abused child. Often the abused child will not tell what has happened … mostly out of fear, but also because the abuser connects “love” to the assault(s). Many children remain loyal or even say they “love” their attacker. In no way does this mean they are not traumatized. I’m not sure if McEwan was thinking in this way when he allows Lola to marry her rapist…I know it brought me up short when I read the novel (and I didn’t refer to it in the review because I consider it a “spoiler”). I can certainly understand why readers may not want to read this book or may be offended by this blurring of lines between rape and seduction. I won’t read Lolita because of this same reason – the premise of their being a “love” relationship between an adult and a young girl is just screen for pedophilia (in my opinion). Thank you for this dialogue…

    • Laura on August 13, 2009 at 02:22

    I think Lolas part in this novel is seriously underestimated. Why did she marry her attacker?? Briony of course commits a serious crime which she doesnt fully understand, but remember that earlier in the day of the incident, something happens between Lola and Marshall when they are in the room alone together. She ends up with bruised wrists and he with a scratch on his face. Lola must have known or strongly suspected that Paul Marshall was her rapist. She asks Briony several times if she was sure it was Robbie that she saw, yet lacks the strength of character to override Brionys claims. Perhaps because she is afraid? I see Lola as the real villain in this novel (as well as Paul). We know that Briony has a feeling of guilt and wants to atone for her actions. Lola however, is trying to cover her tracks by marrying Marshall. She never once expresses doubt that it was Robbie. To cover her lie she is marrying the man who really raped her! Lola is complex and we are left to speculate on how she must have felt and what she thought throughout…perhaps Paul Marshall was not raping her at all. Perhaps it was consensual and she was ashamed so went along with the lie to save herself from consequences… thats a whole different line of thought!

    • josh on August 16, 2012 at 20:01

    i never read the book yet but i already watched the movie and thumbs up!it really deserve five stars!at first,the pace is slowly uninteresting…i actually turn off the television but i could’nt sleep so i opened it and pursue watching atonement.the story is expensively real and evil and devastating.i think briony is such a big symbolism of the humanity-jugdemental humanity particularly.they judge things without even knowing them well,that’s why the misconception and misunderstanding happen.but i love briony’s character,she is deep and has an odd vision for the world and for all the things that she see.she is’nt usual.but sometimes being an odd thinker leads to devastation of life.i also like what she’d done to her novel-atonement itself-because she created a happy world for the two persons whose life became miserable because of her.a world here their love story leads to happy ending.even it’s not real at least she used her imagination to make them happy for the last time around.speechless!this movie left me breathless and made me cry after watching it while i buried my body with my blanket!

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