Atonement-Ian McEwan (A review)

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Atonement is a magnificent novel written by British author, Ian McEwan. The story’s main protagonist is Briony Tallis– the attention-seeking daughter of an upper class English family. She is ten years old when we first meet her-a manipulative girl with an uncanny gift for fantasy. She is the worst model of youthful innocence. Briony’s sister, Cecilia, who attended Cambridge, was in love with Robert Turner, the son of the Tallis family housekeeper. When she was ten years old, Briony once confessed her love for the twenty-year-old Robert Turner. Three years later, she was disturbed to read a letter from him to Cecilia with sexual undertones, and was later stunned to find the two in an uncompromising passionate embrace. Crucial to the evolution of the events are the visiting cousins-twins, Jackson and Pieroot, and their older sister (15-year old), Lola -children of Briony’s aunt, her mother’s younger sister, Hermione. At the end of a celebratory dinner at the Tallis home, attended by Briony’s brother, Leon, with aspiring businessman, Paul Marshall, the twins run away. The family goes on a frantic all-night search for them on the family’s huge estate. Then Briony finds Lola alone crying. She had been raped. Briony also spots a larger male figure backing away and receding in the darkness. Briony, out of jealous bitterness, identifies Robbie as the culprit. Lola and her rapist hide behind this lie. Robbie is convicted and sent to prison, and the formidable Tallis family soon crumbles. The story is intricately and very skilfully told in three parts-before, during and after the Second World War.  When the war started, both sisters cut ties with their family and become nurses. When Robbie is released from prison he joins the army-his love for Cecilia undiminished and his hatred for her sister unassuageable. With Briony now an eighteen year old, she is overcome with remorse about what she did. She tries vainly to make up with the lovers. Robbie and Cecilia don’t survive the war. Lola, her cousin, gets married to her molester, Paul Marshall. Almost fifty years later, Briony, has finished her final novel-what she calls her fifty-nine-year assignment. It deals with the crime-Lola’s and Paul Marshall’s crime. In her quest for atonement, she disguises and hides nothing. The only change she made was that Cecilia and her prince survive the war and flourish. She gives the lovers back, through her pen, the happiness that she took from them in 1935. She knows she cannot publish the novel until her cousin, Lola, and her husband, Paul Marshall, die. The Marshalls have earned a reputation for defending their ‘good name with a most expensive ferocity.’ She fears they can sue her to defend their lie. In her old age she describes herself as ‘too frightened and too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining.’ Atonement is a tragedy, of almost Shakespearian proportions, and Briony, is the villain of all ages. Though here character is stained with faults, the reader falls in love with her. Or is it pity? Throughout the story I asked myself what it was in her priviledged young life that made her so cruel. What made this gifted and intelligent child inflict such catastrophe upon those she loved? Or was hers an acceptable and plausible misjudgement of youth? The pungent air of dysfunctionality in her family is very strong. Briony is a child craving for attention and love from parents who didn’t know how to give them. Her establishment father often spends days away from his family, while her embittered mother almost exclusively dwells in her suffocating reverie. Briony’s crime is the main story. Far more than the German bombs, Briony wreaked the most destruction on the people she supposedly loved. As in life, in McEwan’s story there is but little justice. The wronged lovers both perish after their short and disappointing lives. Briony lives to old age, and even acquires the laurels of authorship. Even Paul Marshall, ‘the vertical mass’ that backed away from her the night Lola was raped, ascended in British society to become Lord Marshall. But, in withered old age and unable to live with her guilt, Briony, with her gift as a novelist, redeems herself. In the end her childhood deed is expunged in all but her own mind. Even this, she rejoices in the end, would soon erased by senile dementia. However, there is much that survives in the end-family, love, and humanity to its everlasting credit, even forgives and embraces Briony. Atonement is a modern and powerful work of fiction that is comparable to the very best. Ian McEwan has singular descriptive gifts of characters and places. Atonement is far more than just fiction, it is an elegant psychological novel, and a classic that will continue to be read with pleasure for many years.