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January 26, 2016

Book Review || Atonement by Ian McEwan

ian-mcewan-atonement
'Atonement' has been hailed as Ian McEwan's 'masterpiece' and, while I haven't had the luck to read any of his other novels, I am not inclined to disagree. The novel has a resonance that takes much talent to perfect, and I thoroughly enjoyed its rich stream-of-consciousness characterisation and flawless, timeless descriptions of the world of the 1930s and '40s. Thinking about the novel's imposing status as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winning a National Book Critics' award, one would think the novel is more literary, sitting with the likes of 'Possession' in its intricacy. Indeed, the novel is intricate but not in the way that AS Byatt's novel was: it is intricate in premonitions, retrospectives, and psychology in a way that makes the novel resonate through your day as you're trying to concentrate on your menial tasks, drawing you to it and its inevitable end.

The novel is deeply psychological and thoroughly involved in eking out the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Although the novel is set in a particular time, this gives the novel a timelessness, applicable to everyone. We are alternately told what to feel as Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie who are so consumed by their worlds and thoughts that their worlds become our own. I loved how the characters had an awareness of their own thoughts, categorising them, describing them, involving us in their development and growth. The psychology of the characters, or at least, access to it, makes 'Atonement' a book of feelings and metanarratives that have everything to do with life experience.

Another aspect I enjoyed was Briony's thoughts about writing, which seem more an ode to writing:
"...a story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her readers'. It was a magical process...Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing; as with the crooking of a finger, nothing lay between them."
It is Briony's musings, however, that form the most resonant part of the novel. There is a lovely moment when she is left on her own and considers the time lapse between when she means to crook her finger and her finger crooks. There is none: there was the 'dividing moment between not moving and moving', between what she intends and when it takes effect. This is exactly what happens when she decides to accuse Robbie of raping Lola - it is the moment between her intention to make the accusation and making it that alters the lives of at least three people. She remembers her sister telling her, "Come back", after she has had a nightmare and the phrase is echoed when Cecilia asks Robbie to come back to her, but it is clear that there is no coming back once an intention takes effect.

From the three differing points of view at the start of the novel we are also offered the opportunity to know more than all the other characters, raising our empathy for the situation and also our shock. Thus at the end it feels like a betrayal when Briony reveals that Cecilia and Robbie were never together the way she had represented. I wanted Cecilia and Robbie to be together, to have what Briony took away from them. However, upon deeper introspection the purpose was not to betray but to inspire a retrospective empathy for all those young people killed in a war that was not of their doing: while Briony delayed their union, if it was not for the war the pair would likely have been together, obliviously and deliriously happy, along with all those other young lovers who were murdered for anothers' war.