An engrossing novel, which charts the devastating, lifelong impact of a misguided child’s testimony, in the wake of sordid domestic incidents. Belatedly, Briony Tallis, acknowledging her role in the deceit destined to shatter her family and the life of her sister’s lover, seeks to atone. In this acclaimed work, McEwan deftly develops the plot against the backdrop of Britain in the 1930s, 40s and post-war, conferring upon the book momentum, but also a weight of years, which carries the reader seamlessly to a contemporary conclusion.
One can but feel a sense of enduring torment for Briony, though dwarfed by the price paid by Cecilia Tallis and her would-be suitor, Robbie Turner. The sweep of the book touches on class, and the seismic social change in Britain advanced by the war, as experienced by the main characters. However, while the fickle nature of fate is evident, so too is the injustice of an immutable social order destined to ensure the ‘criminals’ live the life that was expected, apparently untainted by their willingness to sacrifice the innocent.
The book also offers a commentary on love, but challenges the construction of romantic idylls, which demand a happy ending. Rather, Briony’s gnawing sense of guilt is overtaken by the reality of events and her sense of ‘doing the right thing’ must suffer an unsatisfying delay. The resulting sense of unfairness for the victims is palpable and skilfully managed by McEwan, which is testament to his writing powers. Ultimately life can be unfair, despite our hankering for ‘natural justice’!
This was my first dip into the work of this author, but on this evidence he is rightly lauded and I found ‘Atonement’ a truly absorbing read.