Book Review: "Atonement" by Ian McEwan

"Atonement" by Ian McEwan is a novel about a huge mistake a young girl made that haunted her into adulthood. It follows her mistake and the lasting impact it has on her life and that of her sister. In short, it is a book about confessing lies and cowardice, long after such a confession can make a difference.

Briony is the main character of the novel, though it centers on the story of her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the love of Cecilia's life. Briony is a particularly selfish individual, but the extent of her selfishness is not known until the end of the novel. She starts the novel as a young girl, hoping to impress with a play she has written for her family's enjoyment. The story focuses on her propensity for fabricating fantasies from snippets of reality. As a result, she is unable to see reality for what it is or accept it when she cannot understand or does not know what is really happening. Instead, she substitutes her fantastic daydreams and convinces herself she must be right.

The beginning of the novel also follows a series of interludes between Cecilia and Robbie, each of which Briony misunderstands. Because of Briony's misunderstandings and the inability of Cecilia and Robbie to vocalize the truth, Robbie is condemned for a crime he did not commit. Briony is his sole accuser and bears false witness against him. Cecilia knows Robbie is not guilty and abandons her family when they stand behind Briony's accusations.

All of this happens in the first part of "Atonement." Unfortunately, Ian McEwan drags his feet a bit here. He is overly descriptive, making it possible to remove much of the first part and still tell the story successfully. In a funny turn, he later attributes the same overuse of prose to his main character. It almost seems as though this is his confession to his readers. It seems like a way of saying, "Yes, I know that I am wordy. Please bear with me, as my story has merit." He is right, if that is really what he is saying. The book is certainly worth reading. It just takes a little perseverance to wade through some of the more descriptive parts.

Most of the rest of "Atonement" follows Briony through nursing school in the midst of World War II, Robbie's experience as a soldier in World War II and the love Cecilia and Robbie have for each other. Briony eventually comes to realize the impact of her mistake, hoping to fix it. Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that her "Atonement" follows the same pattern as her mistake itself. The reader wants to encourage Briony to do the right thing. It is natural to want Cecilia and Robbie to have the life they deserve together. Apparently, it is what Briony wants too. The ending clears up any misconceptions the reader has about Briony, however. It is impossible to say any more without giving away the best part of the novel -- the true nature of Briony's "Atonement."

Shelly Barclay

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