I have got a lot of mixed reactions with McEwan’s Atonement. On one I love the first half of the book which really sets the scene for the novel and I think that it’s final part is a great twist and the ultimate form of atonement but it’s mid section simply stinks of selling out. It’s as if McEwan saw Saving Private Ryan and tried his hardest to emulate it in prose.
The novel takes place in pre-world War II Britain, where the Tallis family are expecting the return of their son, Leon. His youngest sister Briony has written a play for him , while her eldest sister Cecilia has returned from Cambridge to greet him as well. In the meantime she is also having romantic feelings for her childhood friend Robbie. Also in tow are the Tallis’ cousins Lola and twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot.
Finally Leon arrives with his friend Paul. At the same time Cecilia and Robbie have an argument which is witnessed by Briony. In order to atone for his first mistake Robbie writes a dirty letter then a proper one, unfortunately he sends the dirty one to Cecilia via Briony ( shades of The Go Between here). Briony reads the letter and decides that Robbie is a maniac.
Robbie now realises that he made a mistake and apologises to Ceclia and they have sex in the library, again Briony manages to catch them and formulates her own conclusions – eventually getting Robbie kicked out of the house and arrested.
Years later and Robbie is now a soldier in the second World War both Cecilia and Briony are nurses and the latter is very guilty about her actions. Robbie does actually die of septicemia and never reunite.
Jump forward to 1999 and Briony has now finally atoned for her mistake many years ago by writing the Novel ‘Atonement’ but she changes events and creates a happy ending. Perversely Briony herself states the atonement cannot be achieved through writing as the author can change whatever he wants and shape the future by using his pen.
This is the real masterstroke of the novel. In Plato’s Phaedrus , Socrates places an emphasis that written word is more powerful than spoken and in Atonement we do see that the written word from the letter that Robbie writes to the conclusion that it is writing that shapes people’s actions and destinies. Despite the fact that Briony states that writing will never compensate for actions (which I agree with) the written can be equally powerful.
What does put me off the novel is it’s stuffy writing – something Brit authors tend to suffer from- and the hackneyed mid section. Sure it may be well studied but it still bored me.
Personally I think McEwan excels when he is writing about the perverse and unthinkable. The Cement Garden, Enduring Love, The Comfort of Strangers are really what I look for. Atonement may be McEwan at his most elegant but, with the exception of a few portions of the novel, it’s also his dullest novel to date.