Past mistakes: my thoughts on Ian McEwan's Atonement

While I was paying for a musty copy of Ian McEwan's Atonement, the pretty girl behind the counter looked at my purchase and remarked wryly, 'It's for school, isn't it?'. I shook my head, beeped my Apple Watch against the payment machine and left, not trivially pleased at having been regarded as young enough for school 😉

Atonement is not an obscure novel. The book generated Booker buzz when it first came out and the 2007 film adaptation staring Kiera Knightley was nominated for several Oscars. And lastly, as my tattooed shopkeeper's remark would suggest – the book is part of humanities curriculums across the world. My own copy had clearly been through the hands of a very diligent student who'd scribbled copious notes on the margins, underlining (often with double strokes!) several passages dealing with the inner turmoils of female characters – fodder for a feminist essay perhaps? I love a book that has been inked by a pen or two; it takes a special book to invite such attention.

Atonement begins in 1930s at the idyllic English home of the Tallises that is preparing to entertain family and friends for a special dinner. It is a muggy summer day and the simmering heat induces a general sense of lethargy in the household, but fate is at play. Thirteen-year-old Briony, an aspiring writer, is struggling with the debut production of her play -- Arabella -- to mark her elder brother Leon's homecoming. The play's cast,  the three Quincey cousins -- 15-year-old Lola and the 9-year-old twins, Jackson and Pierrot -- are threatening to ruin the show. Briony's elder sister Cecilia is having her fair share of frustrations as she confronts a newfound love for Robbie Turner, her childhood friend and the cook's son. The romance between Cecilia and Robbie doesn't bloom, it erupts. Briony stumbles upon these confusing scenes and mistakes Robbie to be a sexual fiend from whom her family must be rescued. Her naïveté and charged imagination color her judgement later that evening when she rescues Lola from being raped by a man in the dark. Briony is clear, it had to be Robbie.  The remaining sections of the book deal with the repercussions of this lie.

Part II is a gripping war novella about the 1940 Allied retreat from Dunkirk described from the point of view of Robbie, who had been released early in return for joining the military. This is easily the best part of the book. Adrenaline-charged scenes of Luftwaffe bombing of the fleeing British forces are juxtaposed with chilling descriptions of a war-torn people clinging to a sense of normalcy. This section of the book, in my humble opinion, puts Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk to shame. The film may capture the corporeal splendors of war, but McEwan's writings captures its human elements. The third part features Briony's stint as a trainee nurse during the 1940-41 London Blitz. She has realized her role in ruining Robbie's life and seeks atonement. The theme is how the present is held hostage by the past and sometimes, there is nothing that can be done about it. The last part is set in the year 1999; the surviving characters, frail and aged, come together for the long-delayed opening of the Arabella.

Ian McEwan's mastery of his craft is evident in this book. His portrayal of misguided innocence is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating. He breathes uniqueness into every character and blends a love story, a war story and a redemption story into a sumptuous read that will keep you hooked from the first page.


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