My rating: 5 stars
It is novels such as Atonement by Ian McEwan that attest to the magic of the written word. I first read this fully immersive book in Portuguese more than a decade ago and have now (re)read it in the original. This story about how the imagination of a clueless girl has devastating consequences on the lives of others is a literary feast, which is written in an engaging prose and is full of unforgettable moments between the characters.
Briony had been writing stories since she was very young. On a day in the summer of 1935, at the age of thirteen, she decided to write and stage a play, ‘The Trials of Arabella’, to welcome home her brother Leon. Her decision to embrace a new format was inspired by the presence of her cousins, whose parents were getting divorced. The twins Jackson and Pierrot were nine years old, and Lola, who liked to act as a grown-up, was fifteen. Although her cousins were not too excited to act in the play at first, they ended up assenting to.
Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, had also recently returned home from Cambridge. After picking some wild flowers to put in the room where a friend of Leon’s, the chocolate magnate Paul Marshall, was going to stay, she decided to arrange them in an expensive vase. Nearby was Robbie Turner who tried to help her fill the vase with water on the fountain in the garden. The lip of the vase broke, though, and two pieces fell in the water. Cecilia stripped off her clothes and plunged into the fountain to get them back.
From a window, Briony saw Cecilia and Robbie near the fountain. She couldn’t hear them, but her prolific imagination was immediately ignited by the events that she witnessed. Later, after Robbie asked Briony to deliver a letter to Cecilia, her misinterpretation of their relationship became even greater. Her inventive mind and ignorance about adult relationships led her to commit a grave mistake that she tried to atone for later in life.
There’s a palpable and believable romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie since the beginning, even before they realised their loving feelings for one another. Although they grew up together, it took them some time to realise that their relationship was evolving into something deeper. Cecilia’s father had always paid for Robbie’s education, whose mother was a cleaning lady at the house. Not everyone in the family was happy about that. Cecilia’s mother seemed to harbour some resentment about it. Robbie had also studied at Cambridge and, after graduating with a first in English, was seriously considering to return to university to study Medicine.
The structure of the novel perfectly suits the story. Throughout the book, various perspectives are conveyed at exactly the right time to make it compelling. Particularly in the first part, each chapter focuses more on one of the characters at the Tallis’s household, and the tone of the prose changes slightly to better match their specific states of mind, despite the book being written in the third person. There’s an enjoyable lightness and playfulness to the writing style in the first chapter. But the story gets progressively and duly less merry.
The narration is affecting and various emotions are effectively portrayed. We can almost experience them ourselves, both the joy and the suffering. One reason for this is the prose being very detailed, as even little movements are described, making the story immersive. The settings are also vivid. It’s as if the Tallis’s house, London and Dunkirk are right there before our eyes, erupting from the pages.
The power of written stories is a theme explored throughout the novel in many ways and is, in fact, at its very heart. There are even plenty of references to other works of literature without it ever feeling forced.
“By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”
Atonement is Ian McEwan at his best. It’s a book full of magnetic words, which beg to be savoured. Continuing to turn the pages is an effortless act even when no significant moment in the plot is taking place.