The story is told in four very different segments. The long first section is set on the Tallis family's comfortable country estate in 1935. At its center is Briony Tallis, 13 when the story opens, 77 at the novel's close. The second section jumps to 1940 for a graphic, heartrending depiction of the rout at Dunkirk from the viewpoint of Robbie, a family protégé and gardener's son, and the third returns to Briony, a trainee nurse in a London hospital, awaiting the Dunkirk evacuees. The last section, narrated by Briony, reflects on the past from the vantage point of old age.
As the story opens, Briony, the youngest of three children, and a prolific short story writer, has turned her hand to playwrighting to celebrate the coming visit of her older brother, Leon, and involve some cousins displaced by their parents' impending divorce. But complementing Briony's vivid imagination is a passion for precision and order and directing the recalcitrant, even manipulative cousins, into her meticulous vision proves an unwieldy challenge. "The self-contained world she had drawn with clear and perfect lines had been defaced with the vague scribble of other minds, other needs; and time itself, so easily sectioned on paper into acts and scenes, was even now dribbling uncontrollably away."
While she is wrestling with this frustration, Briony views an incomprehensible scene from the window: her older sister Cecilia disrobing and jumping into the fountain while her old childhood friend, Robbie, looks on. The scene spurs Briony's imagination while the cousins rouse her ire and finally she abandons her play, ticket booth, posters and all and runs outdoors to take her frustrations out on the shrubbery. Wit and despair spark off one another in McEwan's acute portrayal of childhood intensity.
"It is hard to slash at nettles for long without a story imposing itself, and Briony was soon absorbed and grimly content, even though she appeared to the world like a girl in the grip of a terrible mood."
But, tiring of her heroic fantasy with the nettles, Briony returns to herself, more freighted with melancholy than before. She decides to stand on a small bridge until something happens. With perfect irony, McEwan foreshadows disaster: "She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dared to dispel her insignificance."
The reader knows disaster is coming, but what, exactly, remains a mystery. Given Briony's dramatic capriciousness, it could be anything from murder to adolescent embarrassment. We know only that it reverberates down the years through Briony's life. And when at last it stands revealed in all its naked avoidability, McEwan jumps abruptly, jarringly, into the maelstrom of war and defeat.
Where the second section pins the reader in the horror and immediacy of Robbie's every intense moment, the first section roves from one viewpoint to another, riffling through the thoughts and feelings of each character and reflecting the characters in each other's eyes. There's competent, diplomatic Cecilia, flustered and preoccupied with Robbie's stiff behavior, and her mother, Emily, half bedridden, ineffectual and given to fusses but with a sense of herself as the matriarch with an internal finger on the pulse of the entire house, the cousins' bewilderment and insecurity, Leon's easygoing malleability, his tycoon friend's desire for a war to ensure the success of his coated chocolate bar and ardent Robbie's class uncertainties and intellectual confidence.
Psychologically nuanced, there isn't a wasted word, though the writing is not spare. Every sentence furthers the reader's understanding while moving the characters forward in their own groping self-actualization and misapprehension. At the core it's a novel about atonement, about forgiveness and unforgivability, about how some things cannot be undone. It's also a novel about love and war, emotion and intellect, society and the often clueless world of one's own head, childhood and adulthood and the gulf between. It's a novel about the process of writing, of imagination, of misunderstanding. It's an ambitious beautiful book, which succeeds on every level. You won't want it to end.
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We meet 13-year-old Briony Tallis in the summer of 1935, as she attempts to stage a production of her new drama "The Trials of Arabella" to welcome home her older, idolized brother Leon. But she soon discovers that her cousins, the glamorous Lola and the twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, aren't up to the task, and directorial ambitions are abandoned as more interesting prospects of preoccupation come onto the scene. The charlady's son, Robbie Turner, appears to be forcing Briony's sister Cecilia to strip in the fountain and sends her obscene letters; Leon has brought home a dim chocolate magnate keen for a war to promote his new "Army Ammo" chocolate bar; and upstairs, Briony's migraine-stricken mother Emily keeps tabs on the house from her bed. Soon, secrets emerge that change the lives of everyone present....
The interwar, upper-middle-class setting of the book's long, masterfully sustained opening section might recall Virginia Woolf or Henry Green, but as we move forward--eventually to the turn of the 21st century--the novel's central concerns emerge, and McEwan's voice becomes clear, even personal. For at heart, Atonement is about the pleasures, pains, and dangers of...