by Ian McEwan
Atonement is set in 1935. It begins with a wonderful, perfect and minute evocation of family life in the Tallis home. This really is the most perfect writing, we are completely lulled into the sleepy, cosy world where the biggest dilemma of the day is whether to instruct cook to serve the roast chicken hot or as a salad.
A happy, secure family are waiting for the return of their beloved son, Leon. The stifling summer and equally stifling etiquette of pre-war upper class England are so carefully and slowly observed, that at first, this does not seem like a McEwan novel at all. Where is the action? Where are the hideous life - changing events, twists and turns, grisly details and insoluble human dilemmas? However, we don't have to wait too long before unease descends on the idyllic family. 13 year - old Briony stumbles across her sister Cecilia's secret love affair with the lower-class Robbie, son of the family's cleaning lady and protégé of the family. Briony has a theatrical, dramatic character and cannot really distinguish between fact and fantasy, and constructs her own version of their grown - up love.
Some scenes in novels are so vividly portrayed that we are under the impression that we have actually been there and shared the experience - McEwan works this magic with the most extraordinary description of Briony watching Cecilia and Robbie diving in a fountain in the garden.
Briony's misinterpretations have far more serious implications. As in The Go Between, the child/adolescent Briony can not really be held responsible for what she does as she sets into play a terrible chain of events based on things she has seen but only partially understood. As a witness, she becomes the reason that an innocent man is convicted of a terrible crime. But if we are able to forgive Briony, we cannot do the same for the adults, who should be able to identify the truth. But this is pre-war society at its most prejudiced and sickening: polite society closes ranks and, conveniently for all, the lower - class interloper is found guilty. It is with a sense of foreboding that we realise that the title of the book tells us what dominates the rest of Briony's life. Somehow she must erase the guilt that has changed the course of her life, and it is only much later that she learns the whole truth of what happened. Readers will have to draw their own conclusions on how successful she is in finding atonement.
Atonement successfully and vividly moves on to the battle scene of Dunkirk. We feel disorientated by the sudden shift in scene, shocked by the vivid and relentless scenes of horror, mirroring the experiences of the men, uprooted, transported and caught up in the terrible conflict. Against such a backdrop, Briony's guilt and Robbie's grievance should dwindle into insignificance and be forgotten, but unhappily they do not.
The scene shifts again to London, here Briony is working as a nurse, caring for the battle wounded, crudely patching them up to send them back. Here McEwan does not spare us the graphic detail of everyday life of the virtually untrained, naïve young women holding these men's lives in their hands. Their wounds are unbelievable - burns, amputations, men who are waiting to die…Whatever punishment Briony needs to quieten her soul, surely this is enough. However, Briony cannot simply shrug off her past, and in realising that she is not a good nurse, and cannot separate from the damaged lives of the men, she turns to another route to appease her demons. Fantastic twist! It's symbolic, clever and very Ian McEwan
My book group also loved Atonement. We found the first half of it electrifying but felt it went downhill in the second half. The meeting between Briony, her sister and Robbie in the flat was very confusing ,
and the last chapter we found very sentimental. However, it still rates highly on our all time greats list.
(Glasgow book group)