Let it be known that Ian McEwan has a new and very devoted fan. I devoured Atonement in all its devastatingly eloquent prose and impeccable characterizations against the backdrop of stunning visuals from the England countryside to the World War II battlefield in France. But the true beauty is in the landscape of the human condition, the inner workings of the human mind and its vices of social hypocrisy and self-destruction.
The book opens in 1935 within the rich fantasy life of Briony Tallis, a thirteen-year-old girl living in an upper-class home in the English countryside. She is an aspiring writer who molds her own reality so that they resemble her stories, and when she witnesses the courtship between her older sister, Cecilia, and the servant’s son, Robbie, her incomprehension of adult behavior, coupled with her imagination, leads her to accuse Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit. The novel goes on to chronicle the far-reaching repercussions and Briony’s lifelong repentance, both of which transport the characters to the frontlines of World War II.
With the poetic grittiness of Tennessee Williams and the shrewdness of Oscar Wilde, McEwan paints a vivid portrait of the dysfunctional Tallis family: parental neglect, petty sibling jealousy that spans decades, the scandal of divorce and willful manipulation driven by resentment and class prejudices, all simmering beneath a refined and cultured exterior. The only show of familial love is the sibling bond between Cecilia and her brother Leon, which is put to the test as Briony’s accusation tears the family apart at the loosened seams.
Briony, part narrator and part character, draws readers in with her multifaceted personality: relatable yet despicable, narcissistic yet conscientious, and childlike in her desire to live in a world of her own creation. It is through her that McEwan delves into the very nature of writing; the ability of storytellers to create their own reality, and the destructive collision between reality and fantasy. Within this he also entwines an exploration of the nature of redemption and forgiveness, and the insight that comes with age and maturity, as Briony grows older and realizes the consequences of her actions.
McEwan’s seamless narration takes us from young Briony’s little world to the carnage that Robbie faces as a soldier and the restrictive environment of war nurses in training, and just as impressive as his mastery of the English language is his keen understanding of human nature. Not since Dostoevsky have I read a more intuitive and psychologically sound character study. Among his many talents is his ability to make his characters vivid and real, and they emerge fully formed from the page as human beings, thereby heightening the experience of reading the novel and following them on their journeys to attain personal fulfillment in the aftermath of a child’s lie.
Needless to say if you are not reading Ian McEwan, you are surely missing out. Atonement enthralled me from beginning to end. It’s the full package of style and substance, and I strongly advise anyone and everyone to pick up a copy ASAP.