Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

“But hidden drawers, lockable diaries, and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: She had no secrets. Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel. … Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel’s skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know.”

I would go as far as saying that this is one of my constantly changing and ever evolving top three books.. I think that I have already said that I studied this book at A level and whilst it took me a couple of weeks to get past page three, I couldn’t put it down.

I think that not only is it a beautifully written book, with one of my all time favourite characters, it also asks its reader some very powerful and difficult to answer questions.

The story starts with a young Briony Tallis, whose talent for writing and creativity leads her to making a mistake that captures and changes many lives for ever. The novel follows Briony, her sister Cecilia and Robbie through young love, remorse, growing up and the act of forgiving oneself.

What I find so exciting about this book is that it looks at the act of writing and the position of the author. The position of McEwan and he can manipulate his readers through what he writes as Briony Tallis.  The author decides what “really happened”. That’s always the case. That is what fiction is. What happens to characters, to the plot…what we as readers should feel and what questions should remain. McEwan makes a convincing case for this ‘godlike role’ that  an author takes on and for the need for some questions to remain and for readers needing to confront them.

After all:

“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”

Characters can change with the flick of a pen…how they feel about themselves, how other characters regard them and most importantly of all how we as readers sympathise with them. The control that authors have is unreal…they control everything within the book, for example, Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship:

 “Falling in love could be achieved in a single word–a glance.”

Fiction doesn’t offer certainty, or absolute answers. It is nothing like factual, literal truth. But McEwan here shows why this fiction-truth is better, and what amazing power fiction has and Atonement is the work of an author coming to terms with this power:

“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

Atonement is a convincing example of why authors write novels — indeed, of how (and why) we all create our own realities (be they in book form, or merely mind-games that allow us to bear the enormity that is life itself). Both Briony-as-author and, much more significantly, McEwan-as-author make a very impressive case for the continued role and need for the novel.

“He knew these last lines by heart and mouthed them now in the darkness. My reason for life. Not living, but life. That was the touch. And she was his reason for life, and why he must survive.”


3 thoughts on “Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

  1. This is a book I’m looking forward to read sometime soon. I loved the way you have portrayed the plot/content of the book, never giving off too much detail but enough to bring out the depth of feelings and characters in the book. I loved the extracts in between, especially the one about an author being a God. 🙂 Great work!

  2. I’m reading this at the moment…I’m only a couple of chapters in…but so far it’s amazinggg…plus I love the film too. 🙂

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