Saturday, November 27, 2010

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I, in spite of my best intentions, saw the movie version of this novel before I read the novel. I usually go the other way - reading the novel before I see the movie because inevitably the book is better than the movie. The movie in this case was actually pretty good and fairly true to the book. However, the book itself was absolutely divine.

Briony is the youngest of the Tallis children. The year is 1935 - Hitler is a rising star but hasn't done much of anything yet.  The Tallis family lives on a tremendous compound in the English countryside.  Robbie Turner also lives on the compound - his mother is a chambermaid in the Tallis household.  Briony is 13 and very imaginatve - the novel opens with her completing a play that she had written for performance by she and her cousins - Lola (15), Pierrot and Jackson. It is readily apparent that she is an avid writer with an overactive imagination. Cecilia wants to fill a vase with water at the fountain in front of the Tallis house. She meets Robbie and they start talking but the conversation quickly becomes awkward. When Robbie wants to help Cecilia with the vase, she remains stubborn, the vase breaks, and two pieces fall into the fountain. Cecilia strips to her underwear, jumps into the fountain and retrieves the fragments while Robbie only stares at her. Briony witnesses the ensuing moment of sexual tension from an upstairs bedroom and is confused as to its meaning. In fact, she thinks that Robbie has coerced her sister in some way and is a "maniac."

Leon Tallis arrives with his friend, Paul Marshall. They meet Robbie on their way to the house, and Leon invites him to dinner. Cecilia is irritated at Robbie's coming, but does not know why he bothers her so much.

Meanwhile, Robbie wants to write a letter to Cecilia to apologize for his behavior at the fountain. He indicates that he also feels awkward around her, and, like her, does not know why. After finishing it, he unthinkingly writes another letter, using the word "cunt," suggesting his subconscious desires towards Cecilia. Although he then writes another version of it, the first version is accidentally delivered to Cecilia via Briony, who reads it. Briony consults her cousin Lola. Briony is then convinced that Robbie is a "sex maniac" and that she must "protect" her sister from him.

Upon reading Robbie's letter, Cecilia realizes her love for Robbie and they end up making love in the library. Briony interrupts them, and interprets their lovemaking as a sexual assault upon her sister.
During dinner, the twin cousins run away, leaving a letter. The dinner party divides into groups to go out searching for them. Robbie and Briony are the only ones who are left alone, as Robbie has to acknowledge later. In the dark, Briony comes across Lola being raped by an unknown attacker. Briony blames Robbie as the attacker. Lola, afraid and disturbed, lets Briony do the talking. The police arrive to investigate, and when Robbie arrives with the rescued twins, he is arrested solely on the basis of Briony's testimony. Apart from Robbie's mother, only Cecilia believes in his innocence.

This book was wonderful.  It was beautifully written and meaty - something that you could sink your teeth into on a cold winter's night with a glass of red wine or some tea.  I also really loved how Ian McEwan dealt with the themes of false charges and mistaken identity and the far reaching impact such a false allegation can have upon many people - in this case, Cecilia, Briony, Robbie, his mother - the entire Tallis family in fact. I enjoyed how Briony attempted to atone for it throughout the entire novel, but didn't really ever fully atone or was ever fully able to forgive herself for her sins. This novel is perhaps the closest ever to being the perfect novel because it has developed its themes, story, characters extremely well. 

You must read and own a copy of this exquisite novel!

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