Atonement was first published in 2001, making this year the 20th anniversary of its release. This is the novel for which Ian McEwan is best known (by me, anyway). It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release, TIME named it one of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923, and it was made into a remarkably successful film starring Keira Knightley. I went in blind, though, having never seen the movie and knowing nothing more about it than I read on the back cover.
Atonement is set across three time periods: England just before the Second World War, France during it, and back to England in the present day. That should’ve been my first red flag; I’m still quite tired of WWII historical fiction (as though there’s not any other conflicts or time periods we could write and read about), but I persisted on the promise that it wasn’t really about-about the war, it was about the domestic drama playing out in one tiny corner of it.
It starts off with Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl, kicking up a big stink. She had planned to put on a play to celebrate her much older brother’s return to the family’s country estate, but her young cousins lack the acting chops to bring her vision to life. Her point of view alternates with that of Cecilia, her older sister, who recently graduated from Cambridge (with a “humiliating third”), and Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son (who got a first from Cambridge, despite his humble beginnings).
McEwan seems hell-bent on making mountains out of molehills in this first part, but I’ll try and sum it up as best I can. Basically, Cecilia and Robbie have a few moments of heady flirtation, followed by a passionate – ahem – embrace in the library room. Briony, being a nosy parker with a tendency to the dramatic, witnesses all of this and decides that Robbie is some kind of sexual predator hell-bent on devouring every virgin in his path.
Of course, he’s nothing of the sort. He’s just a young bloke with a hard-on for the rich girl in the pretty green dress. There’s a dinner party, and he spends most of it trying to pretend he’s not staring. Mid-way through, the two youngest children – cousins of Cecilia and Briony – decide to “run away”, and the family sets out to search for them. Lola – another cousin – is attacked in the dark, by a man Briony decides must have been Robbie.
This is the key moment, the pivotal point of the whole novel. Lola is unable, or unwilling, to identify her attacker, but Briony declares with some certainty that it was Robbie (“knowing”, as she does, that he’s a sexual predator). She identifies him to the police as the rapist, and any time she wavers, the adults bully her back into certainty. They are, after all, eager to solve the crime – and Robbie is, after all, just the housekeeper’s son.
Naturally, everything turns to shit after that. Robbie is convicted and sent to prison. He gets out early, on the condition that he serve in the military, and World War II promptly breaks out. The second part of the novel follows him as he tries to bid retreat from France, thinking all the while of Cecilia. She stood by him through the accusation and the trial and the imprisonment, becoming completely estranged from her family in the process.
Eventually, Robbie makes it back to England, and back to Cecilia – not exactly unscathed, but in one piece, at least. The third part takes us to Briony as a young woman, training to become a nurse and still musing over her lie(?), mistake(?), total fuck up(?) that ruined Robbie’s life. She tries again and again to get in touch with Cecilia, eventually showing up on her doorstep. There, Briony and Robbie meet for the first time since that fateful night, and pretty much nothing is resolved. Briony is finally ready to confess, admit that she was wrong in a court of law if it comes to it, and Cecilia and Robbie are all “Well, that’s great and everything, but you still fucked up our lives, so thanks.”
Atonement ends with what can be called either a short fourth part, or a long epilogue. It’s set in London, 1999, and narrated by Briony in the form of a diary entry. In the intervening years, she’s forged a successful career as a writer. However, she has recently been diagnosed with dementia, and knows her mental decline is imminent. So, she’s written her story, to atone (see? you geddit?) for destroying two lives. She also reveals one final clanger: Robbie and Cecilia are dead, both killed a short time after she went to see them.
McEwan’s writing is very Literary(TM). Atonement actually has an interesting story, and I can see how it would make for a good movie, but it’s just buried underneath McEwan’s turgid prose. It was so overwrought at times I burst out laughing; weed isn’t just weed, it’s a “cigarette that drives young men of a bohemian inclination across the borders of insanity”. Briony being an aspiring writer also gave McEwan ample opportunity to slip into annoyingly meta territory. He may as well have left notes in the margin for the reader: “SEE WHAT I’M DOING HERE, AREN’T I CLEVER?”.
I can easily imagine that, had a woman written Atonement, it would have been called sentimental, or wistful, and shelved as “women’s fiction”. The centrality of women in the narrative, and how much time they spent Thinking About Their Choices And Their Roles led me to the conclusion that McEwan was trying way too hard to prove that he wasn’t one of “those” male writers. He went above and beyond to show us that he “understands women” and can write from their perspective. Doing so with a novel about a false rape allegation is a truly bizarre choice – I know it was pre-#MeToo, but sheesh. The military stuff from Robbie’s point of view was marginally more compelling, as though it came to McEwan more naturally. Of course, that could be purely my own bias, but that’s how it seemed to me…
I also can’t ignore the controversy around Atonement‘s origins and “inspiration”. In 2006, Lucilla Andrews came forward and accused McEwan of borrowing too heavily from her 1977 wartime nursing autobiography, No Time For Romance. McEwan, of course, protested his innocence (and continues to do so, to this day), and a bunch of other authors – Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, and even Thomas Pynchon – came to his defense. As far as I know, the matter remains unresolved, and Andrews got nothing more out of it than a line in the acknowledgements.
So, in case you can’t tell, Atonement wasn’t to my taste. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of Richard Flanagan, stylistically and thematically they feel really similar and I’m sure they’d enjoy it, but it was not for me at all. I’ll give McEwan a couple more chances – I’ve got copies of Machines Like Me and The Children Act waiting for me on my to-be-read shelf, and they sound really good. I just hope they’re not buried under the same avalanche of bullshit as this one.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Atonement:
- “I lost the book, haven’t read it, but its a great movie” – Emily
- “A BORING, NAME DROPPING DUD.” – BIRD CREEK BOOKS
- “For some reason I just can’t stand this well-respected and well-loved writer.” – Amazin’ S. Hopper
- “great seller….
silly book” – kenmnyc