Atonement by Ian McEwan

Her words reverberate in his head. Her words keep him going. They remind him why he has to survive. He has to come back, and live the life he deserves to live. With her.

Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement begins five years earlier, on a summer day in 1935 at the Tallis’ family estate in the north of London. The 13-year-old Briony Tallis observes the world around her, and writes about it. It is her purpose to translate the reality into her own fairy tales. Briony’s cousins, Lola and her twin brothers are currently staying at the Tallis’ house, but there are more visitors expected. The oldest child of the family, Leon is coming home accompanied by his friend Paul Marshall. Briony is convinced, it is going to be the perfect night. However, her harmonious life is disturbed by an incident she accidentally witnesses from the window of the nurse room. She watches her sister Cecilia getting undressed by the fountain, climbing into it, standing half-naked in front of her childhood friend and the family’s housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner. The innocent scene, which is a result of the hidden feelings the lovers hold for each other, arouses the young writer’s premature mind. What follows is a series of misinterpretations that encourage Briony’s imagination and consequently form her opinion on Robbie.

Film adaptation of ‘Atonement’ (2007) starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, and Saoirse Ronan.

In the course of the day, Robbie Turner decides to confess his feelings to Cecilia. His desperate need to declare his love results in two versions of a love letter, whereas one of them contains vulgar expressions. He got carried away with that one. Of course, he would send the other version to her, the one without the word “cunt”. On his way to the family dinner at the Tallis’ house, he meets Briony, and asks her to deliver the letter to her sister Cecilia. Briony, driven by her curiosity, seeks confirmation of her premonition, and opens the letter. It turns out that Robbie has sent the wrong version by mistake, and Briony is confronted with a situation she is unable to understand. Her new preconceptions of Robbie’s true nature are reinforced when she walks in on Cecilia and Robbie making love in the library. She is certain that Robbie assaulted Cecilia, and wants to hurt her. Cecilia must be protected from this maniac.

During the family dinner, the young twins run away, and the whole party sets out to search for them. As Briony walks alone in the night, she discovers her cousin Lola being raped by a man. Although she cannot see the assaulter, she knows it must be him. Robbie. In the following hours, Briony claims to have seen Robbie rape her cousin. She identifies him as the attacker, not because she has seen him, but because it must be him. The scenes she has witnessed over the course of the day kindle her imagination, and make her believe in his immorality. Briony’s lie results in the arrest of Robbie, and Cecilia refuses to talk to her family ever again. The young lovers are separated. “I love you”, she said.

In the second part of the novel, time has passed, Robbie is a soldier in the Second World War. He is released from prison due to his enlistment in the army. Cecilia, who left her family to become a nurse, has been in contact with Robbie by writing letters to the innocent man in prison. Right before he leaves for the war, they meet in a small café. One last kiss, and they are separated once again. “I’ll wait for you”, she said.

The wounded Robbie is on his way to the evacuation of Dunkirk as he reconsiders all the events that led him to being where he is now. The atrocities of the war follow him on his march. He is injured and tired, but he has to survive to see her again. After years of suffering, he wants to come home, and live the life he deserves. With the love of his life. Be a free man. “Come back”, she said.  

The next chapters focus on Briony’s life as a trainee nurse in London during the war. As she grew older, she became aware of the consequences of her actions. By nursing wounded soldiers, staying with them until they die, she hopes to perform penitence. In the meanwhile, Briony realizes that it was Paul Marshall, who raped Lola Quincey years ago. Although Briony knows what happened back then, she does nothing to prevent the upcoming marriage of Paul and Lola from happening. Nevertheless, Briony wants to make up for what she did, and decides to contact her sister. Robbie and Cecilia live in a small flat together, and expect Briony to clear Robbie’s name. Despite her attempts to apologize, Robbie and Cecilia are not able to forgive her, but Briony promises to discharge him. “Come back to me”, she said.

The last section of the book is set in London in 1999. Briony is an old woman, diagnosed with vascular dementia. She has published many books by now, one of them the memoirs Atonement, the sections we have just read. On the last pages of the book, Briony reveals that Robbie Turner died of his wound the night before the evacuation in Dunkirk. One night before he was to come home to England. Her sister Cecilia was a victim of the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground Station in London soon after Robbie’s death. Briony never saw Cecilia and Robbie again.  The happy ending, we read about just a few pages ago, was just fictional, a result of Briony’s need of atonement, her attempt to compensate what she did to them. She never made up for what she did to them in real life, but at least she gave them the happy ending they deserve in her writing. As you read Atonement you forget that you are reading a fictional story, thinking that it was all real, except for the happy ending that was just made up by a woman who tried to find peace with what she did many, many years ago.  

This book leaves you with moral questions, you won’t be able to answer. Is Briony innocent after all this time? She was the reason why Cecilia and Robbie were separated the moment they found each other. She was the reason why Paul Marshall was able to get away with rape, and later marry his victim Lola. What would have happened if Briony had never seen the lovers in the library? Or never read the letter? Does one single action in the past determine our faith, our future, change our whole life? Should Briony be forgiven after she nursed injured soldiers? Is she innocent after devoting her novel to the young lovers and giving them a happy ending? Would she have been innocent if Robbie and Cecilia survived? Who decides upon her atonement, if she is the author of the story of her life?

I decided to read Ian McEwan’s Atonement when I found it on the TIME magazine’s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923. As Briony reveals that she is the author of the book, the reader is reminded that he reads a fictional work. The restrictions of the text are pointed out, which makes it a metafiction novel. Using this form of literature, reinforces the central question of how to achieve atonement, and who grants it.

Apart from the questions that linger with you once you finished the book, I appreciate McEwan’s way of narrating the story the most. In the first chapters of the novel, Briony discusses how she is going to write her stories, emphasizing that she wants to tell a story out of the different viewpoints of her characters. In the meanwhile, Ian McEwan crawls into the skin of his various characters, gives them life, and does exactly what Briony wants to accomplish. The shift of perspectives reminds of Virginia Woolf’s technique, stream of consciousness. Nevertheless, the boundaries between the characters remain, and the reader is able to distinguish their voices, which results in dynamic storytelling. Certain scenes are repeated out of the position of another character, more information is added or left out, depending on the character’s situation. The reader feels omnipresent, due to the fact that he read about the same scene from a different angle before. The way McEwan tells the story can be seen as an explanation of how misunderstandings arise. We see, we interpret, we analyse, we think we know it all. Another person sees, interprets and analyses the same situation differently, but still thinks that they know it all. But who is right? Who is in the position to judge?

Ian McEwan creates an astonishing work of literature, confronting the reader with questions of guilt and innocence, redemption and punishment. Atonement has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize rightly. In my opinion it contains one of the best, and most tragic love stories in literature. A young pair, compelled to be separated despite their innocence, promising each other to be loyal in times of war, and betrayal. McEwan created a Shakespearean love story that reminds of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers, meant to be together, but doomed to never get their happy ending. Their love is based on two intimate moments, their encounter at the fountain, and in the library back in 1935. This is all they ever needed to believe in their union. Over the years of separation, they relived this moment again and again. They only got their happy ending in the form of a work of fiction, but their devotion lives on.

…suddenly a figure was running towards the car as fast as possible in a tight dress. Cecilia slowed as she approached. Robbie turned and took half a pace towards her and, surprisingly, the inspector stepped back. The handcuffs were in full view, but Robbie did not appear ashamed or even aware of them as he faced Cecilia and listened gravely to what she was saying.

“I love you. I’ll wait for you. Come back. Come back to me.”

Paperback, 351 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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