Atonement – Ian McEwan

Published August 8, 2018 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose.

On a hot summer day in 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives. As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece.

What did I think?:

I’m so, so glad I made the decision to go back and re-read the books on my favourites shelves alongside a non fiction read and a “main,” read. Atonement is one of my all time favourites and it definitely deserved every single one of its five stars and a spot on the shelf. I don’t keep every single book that I rate five stars – ha, I just don’t have the room sadly! So how does a book end up on this shelf? It has to move me, be memorable and stay with me long after finishing it and finally, it has to be a book I can see myself re-reading again in the future. It’s also a great way of seeing if re-visiting a book after a period of time away from it will lead me to rating it differently and potentially getting rid of it from the shelves – something I was very nervous about! Luckily, Atonement remains both a firm favourite, maintaining its illustrious position and making me consider if I might re-read it again in a few years once again.

Ian McEwan, author of Atonement.

Set just before the outbreak of the Second World War, we are initially following the Tallis family – Briony the youngest, Cecilia the eldest girl and their brother, Leon who is returning with a friend for a rather swanky dinner party at home that same night. The family also have their cousins staying with them under quite unhappy circumstances as their parents marriage is going through severe difficulties. So in order to cheer them up and distract them from the rumours surrounding their parents, Briony (an inspiring and precocious writer) is determined to put on a play she wrote herself. For childish reasons, she might also be clamouring for attention, desperate that her family especially her mother and beloved older siblings, would take pleasure in her talent.

A scene from the movie adaptation of Atonement with Keira Knightly and James McAvoy.

As you may have suspected, Briony’s grand plan doesn’t end up going off to plan and she becomes sulky, distant and incredibly vulnerable. It’s at this particular point of her mood that she witnesses an altercation between her sister, Cecilia and her childhood friend Robbie Turner that she doesn’t help matters by deploying her vivid imagination to mistakenly think of what “might” have been happened. The situation is only exacerbated when Briony comes across a note from Robbie to Cecilia that shocks her to her core and then once more happens upon them in the library alone together. All these little happenstances and coincidences leads Briony to make the most life-changing accusation she has ever perpetuated in her life and permanently alters one man’s dreams and wishes into something a whole lot different. Briony must atone for what she has done but the problem is, can she ever be forgiven?

Okay, I’ll admit….when this book started at first I wasn’t into it at all. I found myself confused as to why this book was so highly rated (by myself as well!) and this was mainly because of the extra slow speed and occasional complexity of the narrative. It is literary fiction at its most beautiful and moments, characters, situations are described so picture postcard perfectly, you might wonder why I hesitated. I DO love all of these things and much more besides, but I felt like if McEwan had threw more weight behind to what was going on with his lesser characters, like the elusive Mrs Emily Tallis and the suffering of cousin Lola Quincey, I would have become invested in the story at an earlier point.

Then THE EVENT occurs. This is when Atonement really starts to hit its stride and I could breathe a sense of relief and wipe an anxious drop of sweat from my brow. One of our main characters ends up in quite a difficult, dangerous situation, fighting overseas as a soldier in France and the things he sees and has to deal with on a daily basis as well as trying to remain alive himself are nothing short of horrific. Briony is back home herself working as a student nurse and attempting to do her part for the war effort but she still cannot stop thinking about the awful things she did when she was a child and begs her estranged sister, Cecilia for contact and a forgiving ear.

I’ve read a few other things by Ian McEwan, some I’ve enjoyed, others I haven’t liked at all sadly, but I honestly think this is his most wonderful piece of writing yet. The betrayal, the secrets, the lives they have had to lead and the guilt and turmoil that follows every single character round is hugely fascinating and occasionally emotional to read about. Short-listed for The Man Booker Prize back in 2001, it was a worthy contender for such a prestigious prize and I really hope, because of this accolade you will be interested to give it a shot if you’ve never read any of the author before. I truly believe this is the most perfect place you could start with his writing but I beg, please push through the slow parts, it becomes an undeniably stupendous novel that I will continue to treasure.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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16 comments on “Atonement – Ian McEwan

  • Great review! This book was so weird for me, I really didn’t like it the first time I read it, and then it got assigned in a college course so I had to reread it and I loved it! Usually I’m afraid of rereading certain books I loved but never paged through again because I’m worried they won’t live up to my memory or my opinion will change, but this one was such a surprise in the opposite way. Amazing book.

    • Thank you very much! 😁 that’s so strange when that happens, I had a similar thing with The Life Of Pi and was really surprised. Makes me wonder if I’m more of a mood reader than I thought? It’s just….how do you know which books you should give a second chance to? 🤔

  • I’m glad you enjoyed reading this book! I read this for English Literature at school, and I was literally the only one in my class that enjoyed it! I think it’s an odd book, and by no means easy to like, but I found myself really getting into it, as much as I didn’t really like many of the characters!

  • Gahhh, I’ve been meaning to read Atonement for ages – you’ve reignited the fire, I must get to it! And, maybe off topic a little, but I was really interested to hear more about what rates as a 5 star book/what convinces you to keep a book on your shelves. I almost never get rid of books, even loaning them to friends makes me anxious… in my mind, it’s kind of like fostering puppies, I want to keep them all and love and nurture them and give them a good home!! 😂😂

    • Haha 😂 I used to be exactly like that then had to move house a few times and realised I couldn’t lug that many books around with me anymore! 😅 It is always tough saying goodbye to them but I have to be brutally honest with myself and think am I ever going to read them again? If not, out they go!!

  • I have had this book on my shelf for years but yet to read it. Your review makes me want to rectify it. Glad to hear that it gets better despite the slow start. Wonderful review Beth.

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