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There is nothing I love more than beginning a book completely on a whim and then being completely enveloped in it. To have that book then completely cast your rational thoughts about the narrative and the prose into disarray is the glistening cherry that sits atop an immaculate sundae. Such is Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, which I literally just closed the cover on.
Told in three parts, Atonement tells the story 13-year-old Briony Tallis who witnesses a moment of sexual tension between her older sister Cecelia and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie. Briony’s feverish imagination and childish naivety causes her to misinterpret Robbie’s behaviour as villainous and when a horrifying attack befalls her cousin Lola, she is quick to blame Robbie, causing his arrest and incarceration. Years later, as Robbie desperately tries to survive the Dunkirk evacuations and Cecelia severs all ties with her family for falsely accusing her love, Briony comes to realise the severity of her mistake and tries to atone for her childhood crime.
I absolutely adored this book. There is something so strangely and unidentifiably compelling about McEwan’s lengthy, wordy prose. The story itself ticks all the boxes for a thrilling afternoon read: drama, a love that overcomes adversity, guilt, betrayal, and suspense, but more than that it’s a self-indulgent story of the pleasures (and pains) of writing as well as the dangers of misinterpretation and the strain of changing gears from child to young adult.
McEwan has a somewhat signature style in his narratives that explores and describes the unfolding events –as well as the elongated moments in between- in a stream of consciousness from the various perspectives of his characters. Atonement has this in spades, with even something of a metafictional critique on the narrative style itself, which is not only compelling, but very amusing (as well as relatable to any writers in the readership).
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And then there is the epilogue, which is both satisfying and maddening, as many loose ends are tied up in terms of where various characters end up, but a wider avenue of mystery is opened as to the truth of the preceding events. A tongue-in-cheek epilogue with some sadly ironic conclusions, it’s a perfect ending.
Author: Ian McEwan, 2001
Published: Jonathan Cape (London).
Achievements: Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. Adapted into a film starring Keira Knightly and Saoirse Ronan in 2007.