From the archive: Atonement book review.

First published: 27/06/2014


Considered to be one of his best works, Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement highlights the tragedy and harm that comes from lying.

Just a few years before the outbreak of World War Two, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis has finished her debut play titled The Trials of Arabella. While waiting for her older brother and his companions to arrive for a meal in her country house, Briony observes a private act she should not have witnessed. To her shock, Briony sees her sister Cecilia with the family maid’s son, Robbie Turner, next to the garden fountain where Cecilia strips off her clothes and dives into the fountain while Robbie watched. This event changes Briony’s view on the world and ultimately transforms the lives of all the people involved in the fountain affair.

Later that day, Cecilia and Robbie become victims of Briony’s naive, but wild imagination. The young girl holds the power to determine Cecilia and Robbie’s future and spends the rest of her life trying to atone.

McEwan’s novel is split into four sections, which take place in different time periods to emphasise the prolonged effect caused Briony’s vocal mind. Within Part One of the novel, McEwan interestingly changes his narrative voice to several of his characters and presents their perspectives on single events throughout the chapters. Beautifully, the variety of narrative voices intertwine and illuminate the blindness characters may feel when viewing a situation and not knowing all sides of the story.

Atonement was written in 2001, however the scenery and way of life presented at the start of the reminds the reader of an Austen novel. Although to begin with it seems that McEwan may go down an Austenesque route, he modernises the concept by the use of vulgar words that are more fit for contemporary texts and is writer’s craft removes the sameness that could be received from a Nineteenth century novel. McEwan also touches upon World War Two and instead of focusing on the actual battle, he chooses to describe the horrors soldiers went through and the representation of home, which is a refreshing approach in War literature.

Overall, Atonement is a beautiful and tragic novel which can be loved by a variety of age groups. However, it should probably be recommended to a 16+ audience due to its mature content.