The first ever McEwan book I read was On Chesil Beach. It was a short and sweet read which left me wanting to read more from this author. The obvious choices were Amsterdam and Atonement. While Amsterdam met my expectations and proved me right on reading another McEwan book, Atonement exceeded my expectations. This was expected to happen because Amsterdam won the 1998 Man Booker Prize whereas Atonement only got a nomination in 2001. I have a history of not liking Booker Prize winners, so I wasn’t surprised when I liked the latter better.
Atonement is about a woman who has committed an unforgivable crime in her childhood. The book is the journey of how lives were affected because of her mistake and what she does to achieve atonement. The book is set in England and uses the world war 2 as a backdrop in a certain part of the book. The young girl, Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl dreams of becoming a writer. She enjoys the process of writing – creating an entire different world and the characters in it, changing them and making them act and talk according to her will. She loves melodrama and she is always trying to impress her parents and siblings by writing stories and plays for them.
Briony accidentally witnesses an incident between her elder sister, Cecilia and their charlady’s son, Robbie. What was an innocent incident turns into a vulgar, adult act in the eyes of a 13-year-old. Briony is still to understand adults and their motives, she is thrilled to have witnessed something she should not have. She gives the entire scene her own meaning which is far from the truth. Two more incidents that follow (which she again witnesses) take on a different meaning because she has already decided on Robbie’s intentions about her sister. This innocent, melodramatic interpretation makes her commit a crime which affect many lives, especially that of Emily and Robbie. The rest of the book is about how Emily and Robbie get on with their lives and how Briony realizes her mistake and makes amends.
McEwan has strong characters in his books. He gives each of his character a unique voice and this is very evident in Atonement. Briony is a teenager during the initial part of the book. The voice of the book takes on a childish tone whenever Briony is in the scene. The part where Briony is furious at Lola and slashes the weeds and another one where she stands on the bridge and decides not to move from there until ‘big’ happens in her life – all of these are so typical of a teenager. This part made me realize how similar I was to Briony as a teenager. The voice for her character changes gradually as she grows up. I wonder how writers can achieve this. The book dips in between when Robbie goes to war front. This part was slow and boring. McEwan could have done without this. The period where Robbie is in jail and he exchanges letters with Cecilia is sweet and heart-melting.