Review - Atonement A Novel by Ian McEwan Anchor, 2001 Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. Sep 9th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 37)
Ian McEwan's novel Atonement starts off with the theme of a fiction within
fiction.Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis
is putting on a production of a play she herself has written.It is a short piece titled The Trials of Arabella, and she envisions
herself playing the title role, but her older cousin Lola takes it for
herself.What's more, her two younger
cousins, Jackson and Pierrot, are half-hearted participants, and ruin the
effect of her carefully written lines.
It is the summer of 1935 and the threat of war is
already looming over the wealthy family.Briony's sister Cecilia has just graduated with degrees in English from Cambridge
University, at the same time as Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis' housekeeper. Both
their educations were paid for by Cecilia's father, Jack Tallis who was happy
to act as Robbie's patron in the spirit of a philanthropic social experiment.Cecilia and Robbie did not meet often when
they were at Cambridge, and their relationship seems strained by their
different social positions, but it becomes clear that they both harbor
repressed passions for each other.
Briony plays a destructive role in the developing
romance between Cecilia and Robbie, her interference brought on by her
misunderstanding what she sees around her, and her misunderstanding caused
largely by assumptions about class and gender.The novel hints that she herself will go on to become an acclaimed
author, and it seems this episode in her life is a crucial one for her,
although it only becomes clear how crucial at the end of the novel.
Part Two of the novel is set several years later,
during the Second World War.Robbie at
this stage is in France during the British retreat through Dunkirk, and McEwan
devotes some of his most powerful writing to the description of the atrocities
of war and the way that Robbie has to focus on his own survival rather than the
plight of others.We also see Briony start work as a nurse,
having to face the terrible injuries of soldiers.She too finds ways to cope, finding her life transformed by
circumstances, and yet still feeling the burden of the effects of her immature
actions in that summer of 1935.She
does not have to be a nurse, but she chooses to partly in an effort to atone
for the damage she caused to her family.
Many reviewers have hailed this novel as McEwan's
best.His early collections of short
stories and short novels such as First
Love, Last Rites, In
Between the Sheets and The
Cement Gardentook pleasure in their own perversity, flirting with
taboo subjects while maintaining an emotional distance from their characters
largely through the almost poetic use of language.His early work has an adolescent quality to it, skillfully styled
yet refusing to engage in profound analysis of the lives he describes.Atonement
is certainly a weightier work, achieving an unusual moral seriousness through
its setting of wartime Britain and its investigation of how one day's events
can transform a whole life.Nevertheless,
there are also clear similarities between this work and his earlier work.McEwan is still drawn to the theme of
youthful sexuality, and of innocent and not-so-innocent children.Furthermore, without giving away the end of
the novel, I'd suggest there's a sense of cleverness to the writing that is
reminiscent of his earlier work.He
still takes some pleasure in some game-playing with his reader, although in
this work he does with in a way that fits well with the themes of the book,
making for a more satisfying whole.
leads the reader to contemplate the moral power of a novelist in telling
stories, and what the writing of a novel can accomplish as an ethical
action.It's tempting to postulate
McEwan's identification with the young author Briony, who is of course also his
creation.If he does identify with her,
and her arguably futile efforts to make amends through her writing, then it
follows that he has reservations about the work of a novelist, and he has
reservations about the very project of writing.This novel, in its unflinching engagement with war and family
strife, might be an effort to be more serious and transcend the limitations of
the form.It is certainly a powerful
work, worth careful contemplation.
Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main
research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested
in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is
keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health
professionals, and the general public.
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